Mind & Body

Giving Good Advice


I’ve written in the past about the good advice I’ve received from various people in my life. Last week, I wrote about how to avoid unsolicited advice. Today, I’m going to round out the discussion with some thoughts about how to give your friends and loved ones good advice.

As a professor, one of my many jobs is to serve as an advisor. Part of that job involves helping students figure out what classes to take each semester–but that tends to be a fairly small part of advising. Students have sought me out to talk through roommate conflicts, issues with significant others, and difficult conversations they need to have with parents. They come in to talk about studying abroad–how to choose a program, when to apply, and whether to apply. Sometimes they come into my office to talk just because they know I’ll listen. They don’t have anyone else in their life who’s willing to do that.

Which brings me to my first suggestion for giving good advice:

Listen for a long time before you speak.

When I was new to the game of advising, I’d often start talking too soon–before the student had actually gotten to the point. This meant I was often giving advice that was irrelevant to the real issue.

A student might, for instance, come into my office and ask about how to apply for graduate school before getting around to the fact that going to grad school likely meant ending a longstanding relationship. What that student really wanted was advice on how to explain this decision to the various people who’d be questioning that choice.

Most of the time, people who come to you for advice will take a while to get to the point. There’s a story behind the question. Sometimes that story is lengthy, so be patient and hear them out. If you don’t have time, suggest getting together sometime when you do. And don’t start talking until you hear a question like What do you think? or an observation like I just don’t know what to do.

That’s your cue. When you hear it:

Ask lots of questions.

When a friend comes to you for guidance, chances are they’re trying to clarify their own thinking. That’s why people don’t always take the advice we offer–sometimes, our suggestion helps them figure out what they’re not willing to do.

So rather than jump into advice-giving, ask the questions that will help them get some clarity. What does your gut tell you to do? What’s keeping you from doing that? What priorities are in conflict here? Are those your priorities, or someone else’s? What’s the bottom line–what do you want to do? What’s the worst case scenario, if you make that decision? These kinds of questions allow us to say, out loud, in front of another person, what we’re really thinking. Simply doing that can be really powerful.

Of course, it’s crucial that you listen when those questions are being answered. Even if you’re convinced that your friend isn’t being honest with herself–if she claims that something is a priority when you’re certain that it’s not–move forward as if she’s telling the truth. Chances are, she’ll recognize her own dishonesty as you sort through the issues. (And if she doesn’t? There’s not a thing you can say to make that happen. People get honest with themselves when they’re ready to, and not one moment sooner.)

Finally, be honest.

Giving advice can be a really difficult business. Sometimes you have to tell people things they don’t want to hear. More than once, I’ve been the person who has to tell a student that their chances of being admitted to a prestigious graduate program are exceedingly slim. I do not tell those students whether or not they should apply; that’s their decision, and it’s not my job to discourage them. It is, however, my job to be honest–even when that means delivering bad news.

But when someone comes to me and says I want you to be completely honest, I try to hold off on giving advice as long as possible. Why, you ask? Isn’t this person literally begging for honesty? I don’t think so. The person who asks for total candor wants to hear you say the thing they know is true, but can’t admit to themselves. They want you to do this so they can reject it outright. For instance:


Friend: I want you to be completely honest. Do you think I’m unprofessional at work?

You: Well . . . I guess you do talk about your personal life a lot. You could probably do that less often.

Friend: Everybody does that! Am I supposed to pretend that I don’t have a life outside of work? That’s ridiculous!


See what happened there? But watch what happens when you listen and ask questions instead.


Friend: I want you to be completely honest. Do you think I’m unprofessional at work?

You: Why are you asking me that?

Friend: Well, I had my quarterly evaluation today . . . (Recap of the evaluation) . . . My supervisor said that’s something I need to work on.

You: Do you think that’s true?

Friend: Well . . . yes and no. I mean, I guess I talk about my personal life a lot. But everyone does that!

You: Do you think you do it more often than people?

Friend: I don’t know. Maybe? I guess I could try to do it less often.

And thus your friend arrives at the same conclusion you would have presented outright–but by taking charge of the problem, not resisting it, she actually might benefit from your input.

As I noted in my post on unsolicited advice, it’s really important to determine whether or not someone is asking for help. Often, what friends need is just a sounding board. But even when we’re called upon to offer advice, the best thing any of us can offer is a sympathetic ear.




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