Ever been asked for advice by a friend or family member? Or seen a friend struggling with a bad situation and felt you could help them with some advice? Then you gave your advice and they didn’t follow it. Or worse, they seemed hurt or offended by what you said.
Along with the pleasures of celebrating with friends and family, holiday gatherings often provide potentially risky temptation to give advice to the people we care about.
This year, if you feel tempted to give advice or even if you are asked for advice, consider the following ideas to leave them smiling with your response.
First of all, recognize that it’s not just about them. Giving advice feels good. According to a study published in 2018 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, giving advice increases the adviser’s sense of power because of the perception that the adviser influences the other person’s behavior.
A recent article on this topic in the New York Times summarized three factors identified by researchers that determine whether input will be taken to heart. “People will go along with advice if it was costly to attain and the task is difficult (think: lawyers interpreting a contract). Advice is also more likely to be taken if the person offering counsel is more experienced and expresses extreme confidence in the quality of the advice (doctors recommending a treatment, for example)”. Very often the advice we are asked for in social situations is expected to be free and may be outside our area of expertise.
The third factor about acceptance of advice as identified by researchers is the influence of emotion. People are less likely to be influenced by advice if they feel convinced about what they’re going to do, (example: I’m going to stay with the no-good partner no matter what), or they’re angry ( such as: I’ll text her now while I’m good and mad). Holiday gatherings with additional inputs such as alcohol make it even harder to manage the effect of emotion.
So how does a caring friend handle giving advice?
- Assess: What does the person want?
Make sure that the person is inviting your advice. Sometimes they just want to be heard.
In the days when I was a new lawyer with recent and limited expertise for which people sought my advice, I had a family member struggling with a physical health problem. Whenever I saw the person she talked for a long time about her condition. I responded with helpful advice about what I thought she could do to alleviate her suffering. Years later when I reflected about our relationship, I realized that she was not seeking advice. She wanted me to listen to her. Just that.
If you’re not sure whether your advice is being sought, ask. “Would you like to hear some of my ideas? When is a good time? “
Be ready to take “no” for an answer. If you persist in giving advice after their response is no, it becomes more about exercising your power than helping them.
- Clarify: What advice would they like?
Ask exactly what they want to know that you can help with. Then to make sure you understand, repeat back to them what you heard and check that with them.
Improving your understanding of the context also helps to ensure that your advice is useful. Ask what the person has already done about the problem so that you can focus on different ideas. Consider what the person hopes as an outcome and if it is not clear, ask them.
- Look inward: Am I qualified to give this advice?
Consider your own expertise. Even if you are a close friend or family member you may not have the qualifications to give the advice. If you have the expertise, go ahead and advise. If not, identify the bounds of your expertise and keep your advice within that. For questions where you do not have the qualifications, help them find someone else who is able to provide the advice. Make sure that you are putting the advice-seeker’s needs first.
- Speak from experience
Be friendly and reassuring. Start by mentioning what they have done well in handling the situation so far. Avoid using a preachy tone and judgmental words like “should” and “should not”.
Advice is usually received best when you speak from your own experience. “When I was in a similar situation here’s what worked for me.”
It may be helpful to frame what you say as “ideas” or “thoughts” rather than talk about advice. This creates an atmosphere of collaboration rather than the adviser working on, and exercising power over, the advice-seeker.
- Offer support
After discussing the problem and ideas about how to handle it, don’t expect them to follow everything you said. Let them know it’s your expectation that not everything discussed may be a fit for them. A positive way to close the advice-giving conversation is to ask what pieces of the discussion they will use to take action. Help them to identify a course of action and include what, if any, continued role they see for you. Always respect their autonomy. It is up to them to decide whether you checking back with them in future would seem overbearing or supportive.
Using these ideas to support the advice- seeker can help both adviser and advice-seeker feel empowered and positive.
What great holiday gift for both of you!
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