Do Something Different

How to use the other 9/10ths of your personality.

Who Can I Turn To?

Learn to use advice, not take it.

Everybody has problems from time to time. During those times many of us seek help from others - friends, colleagues, family. Perhaps you have a conflict with a neighbour, or marital problems. Perhaps a crisis at work is troubling you, or a health issue. Or maybe you’ve found yourself in debt, or your grown-up children keep asking you for money……. There are a myriad of ordinary, everyday issues where some sound, impartial advice would help. But who can you trust to give you the best answers?

Advice-seeking has social value

There are many good reasons why you should turn to others in times of trouble:

  1. To get moral and social support, so you feel a little less alone.
  2. To get clarification about issues by talking them through.
  3. To strengthen a relationship, understand one another, and share something.
  4. To relieve the burden of worry; a trouble shared can be a trouble halved.
  5. To seek confirmation, so you feel better about a decision you’ve taken.
  6. To get alternative perspectives from people whose approach and experience differs from your own.

But notice that these reasons don’t include ‘because the advice is right’.

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Don’t take the advice too seriously, you need to decide:

Should you take the advice of others seriously? Should you act on what they tell you?

In my view the answer is usually a big ‘No’. And the reason is simple – we live in our own unique psychological worlds. 

Other people inhabit a different ‘world’ to you. That means their solutions are often not relevant to your situation. Their suggestions and solutions reflect what would be right for them. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for you.

So is it impossible to get impartial advice? Probably. The people you ask have an angle or a view-point which reflects them, not you.  They are never impartial. Even when you trust the person you are asking, you can’t expect them to inhabit your world one hundred per cent.

Why is this? We all live in worlds of our own but have the illusion that we live in the same world as others. Yes, the physical world is largely the same for all of us, but we perceive things from our own unique ‘angle’. To test this ask some friends to describe an event you have both experienced. You might expect your accounts to match.  But you will be surprised at how differently they see things. We never view the world through the same lens as another person. This causes havoc in the judiciary system because two eye-witness accounts of the same event are never identical.

So, ask a friend for advice and they will give you the advice from their perspective, from the world as they see it. They will have good intentions, think they ‘know’ you and your situation, but the subtle differences between people can nullify the advice they offer.

Yet most people love advising others. The reasons for this are psychologically complex, such as:

  1. Some people get a sense of self-satisfaction from hearing about others’ problems. It can make their own problems seem smaller.
  2. People like to impress their views on others. Not because they are right but because it increases their own perceived value or sense of self-worth.
  3. Others may want you to take a course of action that suits them. For example, if you split up from a partner and the two of you spent time with friends – perhaps went on vacation together – the friends’ advice will be tainted, often unconsciously, by the negative consequences for them of your break-up.
  4. Helping behaviour has high social approval. People often like people who offer advice or help.
  5. People want you to do what they do in life.  This confirms their own choices; your needs may come second.

Often the advice people offer give an insight into their own problems. Because they know themselves well and have privileged access to their own situation their advice will reflect themselves, not the person who is the object of their advice.

In general it is best to seek advice from those with a different view to you. They could give a perspective on your decision that you would not otherwise have had. At Do Something Different we value small new behaviours because they help to pull you away from the inertia of your own habits of thought and behaviour.

But beware. The advice that others give can often sound convincing and appeal to what we think (see my blog on the arrogance of thinking), instead of what we need to DO. Often ‘sound advice’ prevents progress for us, not facilitates it, because we believe it applies to us when it does not.  Solutions that work for others may be different to the ones you need.

Some advice applies because it applies to all – and you know it already!

It is true that some advice is good for everyone. We should all keep fit, eat healthily, stay active, monitor our vital signs, have good meaningful relationships, and manage our finances. Most of us know this. But many still fail to do it.  Not through a lack of knowledge, nor lack of willpower. But because personal habits are too strong, people fail to recognise their power, and this prevents change (see previous blogs).

In my view, many problems in the world exist because we fail to see our own uniqueness – we think we live in the same world as others. You know your world differs from that of someone in Ethiopia. But you and your next door neighbour, or your partner, may differ just as much.  Appreciating this difference could help self-understanding and improve relationships. Assume you are different, instead of taking sameness for granted, and this can be a powerful starting point.

And what about professional advice?

Much of what I have said extends to taking professional advice, be it from medics, interior designers or finance advisors. The reasons might be slightly different because they have a service to ‘sell’, or because of their training or experience. But many of them (without knowing, perhaps) will still have partial interests.

That is not to say professional advisors lack integrity. But they too come from a perspective that is unlikely to be truly impartial or universal in view.  The very existence of many types of psychological therapy or counselling for the same problem illustrates the need for caution. Even medical consultants see things from their own speciality and you may need broader inputs to get to the best diagnosis and treatment.

You have the answers

There is often no ‘right’ answer to any problem. Ask ten different people and you may get ten different solutions. Professional people of all kinds are trained to look at the problem you have, and to look systematically at an issue, but even in these professional realms a second opinion could be called for.

So my advice (whether you choose to take it or not) is that YOU can decide for yourself, instead of letting others decide for you.

Ben C. Fletcher, D.Phil, Oxon, is a Professor of Psychology, a behavior change expert, and author of Flex: Do Something Different — How to use the other 9/10ths of your personality.

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