Everyone loves to give advice. Somehow it makes you seem important; after all, if you can give someone else advice, you must be pretty clever. In some cases, of course, advice giving may be part of your job description. For example, if you’re a teacher, lawyer, health care provider, religious leader, or psychiatrist, you are in the advice giving business. And if you give advice that is found useful and consistently effective, you’ll develop a reputation and get lots of business; if your advice is useless and consistently ineffective, you’ll be out of business in short order.
In a somewhat similar way, relatives and friends are also in the advice giving business. And, it’s widely reported, men are more into advice giving than are women. In fact, one of the frequent complaints about men, from women, is that instead of supportively listening to them, they immediately jump to advising; they want to solve the problem.
Advice and Meta-Advice
Advice is best viewed as a process of giving another person a suggestion for thinking or behaving, usually to change their thinking or ways of behaving. In many ways, you can look at it as a suggestion to solve a problem. So, for example, you might advise friends to change their way of looking at broken love affairs or their financial situation or their career path. Or, you might advise someone to do something, to behave in a certain way, for example, to start dating again or to invest in certain stocks or to go back to school and take certain courses. Sometimes, the advice is to continue what the person is currently thinking or doing, for example, to stay with Pat despite the difficulties or to hold the stocks the person already has or to continue on his or her current career path.
One of the most important types of advice, though noted nowhere in the literature on advice that I’ve examined, is meta-advice. The prefix meta- can mean a variety of things but as used in communication, philosophy, and psychology it’s meaning is best translated as about. Thus, metacommunication is communication about communication, metalanguage is language about language, and, in this new coinage, meta-advice is advice about advice. Look at it this way. You can give advice to a person that addresses the problem or issue directly—buy that condo, take this course, or vacation in Hawaii. We can call this object advice (on the analogy of the linguistic distinction between metalanguage and object language). And, you can also give meta-advice, advice about advice. At least three types of meta-advice can be identified.
• To explore options and choices. When confronted with a request for advice, this meta-advice would focus on helping the person explore the available options. For example, if a friend asks what he or she should do about never having a date, you might give meta-advice and help your friend explore the available options and the advantages and disadvantages (the rewards and the costs) of each.
• To seek expert advice. If confronted with a request for advice concerning some technical issue in which you have no competence, the best advice is often meta-advice, in this case, to seek advice from someone who is an expert in the field. When a friend asks what to do about a persistent cough, the best advice seems to be the meta-advice to “talk to your doctor.”
• To delay decision. If confronted with a request for advice about a decision that doesn’t have to be made immediately, one form of meta-advice would be to delay the decision while additional information is collected. So, for example, if your advice-seeking has two weeks to decide on a whether or not to take a job with XYZ Company, meta-advice would suggest that the decision be delayed while the company is researched more thoroughly.
As you can appreciate, meta-advice is one of the safest types of advice to give. When you meta-advise to explore options more thoroughly, you’re not so much giving advice as you are helping the advice-seeking to collect the information needed to make his or her own decision. When you suggest that the advice-seeker consult an expert, you’re shifting the advice-giving from yourself to someone else. And so, in some ways, it may be seen as a coward’s way out; it’s a way of avoiding taking a position on something that is very important to a person who is close to you. Yet, there seems little logic in giving advice on matters in which you are not an expert. When you meta-advise to delay the decision, you’re again not offering specific advice on the issue but enabling the person to have the opportunity to secure additional and, hopefully, relevant information.
Why People Seek Advice
Sometimes, people seek advice because they’re in situations of doubt or indecision (especially important decisions) and so they seek out someone they think might have something useful to say. The greater the indecision and the more important the decision, the more likely are people to seek advice.
Sometimes people seek advice to avoid personal responsibility. So, for example, one spouse may say to the other, “I really don’t know what to do with this bonus money. What do you think?” And, assuming the suggestion is followed, the advice seeking spouse can then blame the other for “deciding” what to do with the extra money. Parents who absolve themselves of advising their child about what college to go to may also fall into this don’t-blame-me class.
Some people are simply advice seekers. It seems reasonable to expect people who lack self-confidence and self-esteem to more actively seek advice than people who are high in these qualities. At the same time, however, people who are logical and reasonable might seek advice from persons who are more expert more often than those who are less logical but think they know it all.
Sometimes, advice seeking is used as an ingratiation strategy. Saying, for example, “I know you know a great deal about finances—you’re like a genius. Would you mind looking over my income tax statement?” likely makes the potential advice giver feel good about himself or herself, more positively toward the advice seeker, and, most important, more likely to comply with the request to review the income tax statement.
The Advice Giver
Generally, advice seekers don’t go to just anyone for advice. Rather, they seek advice from certain people and avoid seeking advice from others. So, what kinds of people would you be most likely to for advice? What special qualities do such people possess?
One obvious quality is expert power—the power that a person has who is perceived to be knowledgeable. Usually this is subject specific. A doctor is an expert on matters of the body but you wouldn’t go to a doctor for financial advice and you wouldn’t go to a financial advisor for advice about your health. Expert power is especially influential when the person is seen as unbiased and not having anything to gain from the advice given. The real estate agent that advises you to buy the condo because the prices will increase shortly may be seen to have something to gain from the advice and so you may discount or discredit to some degree the advice (which may or may not be reliable).
Another type of power contributing to the likelihood of being asked for advice is information power. You’re perceived to have information power if you are seen as having the ability to effectively present information and sound argument. Expert power (the knowledge) and information power (the ability to make an effective presentation of that knowledge) are often combined and make you feel comfortable asking such a person for advice. And if this person has succeeded in giving good advice (or has a reputation for offering wise counsel) your comfort level is likely to be even greater.
Depending on the type of advice you’re seeking, you might look for an advice-giver who has had similar experiences to yours. A new teacher might ask a more seasoned one for advice on dealing with the principal or parents or students. A new prisoner might seek the advice of a cellmate as to ways of making life easier, getting out of the laundry room, or dealing with the guards. A newly divorced person might seek the advice of other divorced persons or may even join a support group. In these cases, the advice giver serves as a kind of mentor and the advice giving and seeking may become on-going.
In relationship matters, you would likely seek advice from someone who is supportive and caring and who you feel likes you and who will look out for your well-being. And so you might seek advice from relatives and close friends but seldom from strangers. The exception here is in seeking professional advice; you may not know a therapist but you might seek such advice nevertheless. And, of course, you’re almost always assured of a supportive atmosphere.
Giving and Receiving Advice
Here are just a few suggestions for both giving and receiving advice. The objective here is to make the process less uncomfortable, more productive, and more polite.
In addition to giving meta-advice, there is also the option of giving specific advice. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Listen. This is the first rule for advice giving. Listen to the person’s thoughts and feelings. Listen to what the person wants—the person may actually not want advice even if he or she says, for example, “I just don’t know what to do.” This may be a request for support and active listening and not a request for advice. Or the person may simply want to ventilate in the presence of a friend. Or the person has really already made the decision but is just seeking confirmation. Or the person is looking for praise by saying “What do you think I can do to make the room look better?” and is expecting the response to be “It’s perfect as it is. I wouldn’t touch a thing.” If you’re in doubt as to what the person is seeking, ask.
2. Empathize. Try to feel what the other person is feeling. Perhaps you might recall similar situations you were in or similar emotions you experienced. Think about the importance of the issue to the person and, in general, try to put yourself into the position, the circumstance, the context of the person asking your advice.
3. Be tentative. If you give advice, give it with the qualifications it requires. The advice seeker has a right to know how sure (or unsure) you are of the advice or what evidence (or lack of evidence) you have that the advice will work.
4. Offer options. When appropriate, offer several options and in doing so include both the upsides and the downsides to each options: If you do X, then A and B are likely to follow. Even better, allow the advice seeker to identify the possible consequences of each option.
5. Ensure understanding. Often people seeking advice are emotionally upset and may not remember everything in the conversation. So, seek feedback after giving advice, for example, “Does that make sense?” “Is my suggestion workable?”
6. Keep the interaction confidential. Often advice seeking is directed at very personal matters and so it’s best to keep such conversations confidential, even if you’re not asked to do so.
7. Avoid should statements. People seeking advice still have to make their own decisions rather than being told what they should or should not do. And so, it’s better to say, for example, “You might do X” or “You could do Y” rather than “You should do Z.” Don’t demand—or even imply—that the person has to follow your advice. This attacks the person’s negative face, the person’s need for autonomy.
Responding to Advice
Here are just a few suggestions for receiving advice.
• If you asked for the advice, then accept what the person says. You owe it to the advice-giver to think about the advice and consider it. You don’t have to follow the advice, you just have to listen to it and process it.
• And even if you didn’t ask for advice, (and don’t like it) resist the temptation to retaliate or criticize the advice giver. Instead of responding with “Well, your hair doesn’t look that great either”, consider if the advice has any merit. You certainly don’t have to follow the advice, just think about it logically. And even if you conclude to reject the advice, ask yourself why someone would think you were in need of such advice.
• Interact with the advice. Talk about it with the advice-giver. A process of asking and answering questions is likely to produce added insight into the problem.
• Express your appreciation for the advice. It’s often difficult to give advice and so it’s only fair that the advice-giver receive some words of appreciation.
P.S. I wrote this as one of the topics to integrate into interpersonal communication. I'd be curious if anyone uses this--feel free to reprint if you'd like--to hear what you think.