14 Thoughts on Advice Giving and Receiving

Tyler Cowen discusses the economics of advice and makes two interesting claims:

You don't know what a person really thinks until you hear his or her advice. Along these lines, if you really want to know what a person thinks, ask for advice and he or she will open up.


Often we do not trust people until we hear their advice.  We suspect in any case that they wish to control us, and until we know what they have in mind, we remain wary.  Sometimes it is necessary to give advice — even pointless advice — to establish trust.

I have thought a great deal about giving and receiving advice. Below are 14 thoughts to add to the mix. I believe #12 is the most insightful (it comes from Chris Yeh).

1. Sometimes people ask for advice but really just want your attention. People like talking things through. Though it might appear they want explicit advice ("So I'm thinking about taking this new job, but I'm torn about the benefits package") what they actually want is someone to hear them out, and perhaps probe a bit, but not prescribe a solution. Books on gender say men usually try to play Mr. Fix-It right away while women are better listeners.

2. We overvalue advice on difficult decisions and undervalue advice on easy ones. So say some studies. During the college admissions process, kids get a million opinions on an admittedly important and difficult situation, but in the end receive so many contradictory thoughts that they end up confused. On the other hand, when faced with where to go for lunch, people would do better to ask around a bit for a recommendation.

3. "Just get started" is the most popular advice dished to aspiring entrepreneurs. But it's a debatable point.

4. Advice is a form of nostalgia. For this reason, we should view advice from others primarily as an opportunity for greater insight into the mind of the advice-giver, rather than as something useful to be acted upon ourselves.

5. "Passion" and "Voice" are two of the most frequent and most vague pieces of advice. Career counselors tell young people to follow their passion and writing coaches tell writers to find their voice. Both are horribly misunderstood.

6. Beware of advice from meta-careerists. That is, beware of advice from someone who is a professional advice-giver (a full-time self-help author, say), rather than someone in the trenches.

7. When giving advice, include the word "because." It increases eventual absorption, regardless of what you say after the word "because."

8. When you give advice, give the person options, and let them choose the best path. People hate to be told what to do — need to make them feel empowered to make the decision for themselves.

9. When you seek advice, should you consult the domain expert or someone who knows you best? Your mother may know you best but she may not know your industry. The domain expert knows the market but doesn't know your individual preferences or history. Conclusion: Get advice first from the domain expert to get a model and assess your choices. Then consult the person who really knows you to understand which choice makes most sense for you.

10. People who are "unconsciously competent" are not the best people to ask for advice. True experts often can't explain what they're doing and why.

11. Actionable advice is best advice. Saying "speak up more" to someone who doesn't talk in meetings is not actionable; saying "say at least three things in the meeting" is more clearly actionable.

12. When you give advice, it's easy to fan the embers but hard to strike a new fire. So listen carefully to their situation and find some aspect of it that you can build upon and emphasize. This will result in best outcome, rather than trying to instill an entirely new idea or some concept that's not already part of their framework.

13. Even if you know the other person is biased, studies show you still don't discount that bias enough. Your car mechanic wants to sell you more parts, and you know that he wants to do that, but we still don't discount his advice as much as we should.

14. Bottom Line: It's fruitful to think about advice on the meta level before engaging in the critical business of asking for advice, or the tricky business of dishing it out.

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