Take It From Me

Before you offer your next suggestion, consider the research on how we weigh in.

By Matt Huston, published May 1, 2018 - last reviewed on August 20, 2018

Have a friend who’s struggling with her latest career choice or a brother who wants your opinion on his relationship? Before you offer your advice, consider a few tips based on research into how we weigh in. 

Check Your Motives

Why do we give advice at all? Compassion, sure, and perhaps a sense of obligation to share what we’ve learned from experience. But there are less altruistic reasons. Recent studies involving online participants, library employees, and students suggest that giving advice can boost one’s sense of personal power, even if the advice is unsolicited. The research also provides some evidence that people with a stronger desire for power and control are more likely to offer advice when they have the chance. “Advice giving has complex and multiple causes,” says co-author Leigh Tost, an organizational behavior researcher at the University of Southern California. “Both givers and receivers might want to consider whether the advice giving comes with some benefit to the advisor.”

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Watch Your Language

The content of your advice is paramount, but style matters, too. Advice givers who communicated more abstractly (by describing making a list as “getting organized” rather than “writing things down,” for example) were deemed more expert and their advice taken more seriously in studies by McGill University organizational behavior researcher Jean-Nicolas Reyt and colleagues. Reyt recommends advice givers try sketching out the big picture of a dilemma or situation “to signal that you know what you’re talking about” before moving on to concrete tips. In another study, by communication researchers JooYoung Jang and Bo Feng at the University of California, Davis, students tended to rate hypothetical problem-solving advice more highly if it emphasized what they could gain by taking it (“You’ll get a good grade”) instead of the risks of ignoring it. Such advice was also judged, on average, more supportive of coping. “Often, the goal of advice is not to persuade,” Feng says, “but to convey care and understanding.”

Avoid False Certainty

Expressing confidence while leaving room for uncertainty—you never truly know how a serious conversation or a job application will shake out—could help you get your point across. “If someone tells you they’re absolutely sure they know how a coin toss is going to come up, that undermines their credibility,” notes Don Moore, who studies overconfidence at the University of California, Berkeley. In research by Celia Gaertig and Joseph P. Simmons at the University of Pennsylvania, participants received guidance as they guessed about the outcomes of sports games, upcoming weather, and future stock prices. They had more faith in confident advisors than those who seemed to doubt themselves (“I’m not sure, but I think...”). But total certainty failed to score advisors points; in some instances, participants actually preferred confident-but-measured advisors (“There is an 80 percent chance the Patriots will win”) and were more likely to follow their suggestions. 

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