When we have problems or dilemmas in our lives, we often ask others for advice: “Do you think I should call him?” “Should I ask my boss for a raise?” “How can I get my teen to clean his room?” “Which cell phone should I get?” “Do you know a good therapist?” We hope for suggestions, insights, or solutions to clarify the path forward.

Except…

We’re sometimes so focused on what we’re asking that we neglect to consider who we’re asking. The reality is that people are rarely objective about anything, no matter how innocuous or straightforward the issue seems. Consequently, any advice people give us is likely to be skewed by their own biases and agendas, as well as their feelings about us.

To adjust for these biases, when we solicit advice, we need to consider what we know about the person and filter their advice accordingly.

Let’s look at an example of why doing so is important:

Your partner just admitted to cheating on you by having sex with someone they met at their hotel while on a business trip. You suspected nothing, but they felt so plagued by guilt and remorse that they decided to come clean. You feel blindsided, devastated, confused—and furious. You happen to have two friends whose partners had also cheated on them, so they seem like the best people from whom to seek advice as they have been through it themselves.

But are they really the best source of advice in this situation?

True, they’ve been through seemingly similar situations, but that probably makes them the least objective people you could consult. Their advice will probably reflect their attitudes and feelings about their own situations more than their feelings about yours. If one of these friends chose to leave their marriage because they caught their spouse having a long-term affair, how likely are they to advocate for you preserving and rebuilding your own relationship, despite the clear differences in the two situations? And if your other friend was always slightly envious of how happy you had always been with your partner (or seemed to be), might not those feelings impact any advice they offer you?

To avoid getting the wrong message from people, and to make smart decisions about seeking advice, first ask yourself these 5 questions:

  1. Are you seeking advice or validation?

    We often confuse seeking advice with seeking validation for a decision we’ve already made. For example, if you’re asking this kind of question—“I’m so behind at work and I’m going to see my family over Christmas anyway, so it’s not terrible if I don’t go home, right?”—you’re essentially asking for validation under the guise of seeking advice because you’re posing a very leading question that leaves little doubt as to the answer you want to hear. Most people will happily validate our decisions in such cases. If you really want actual advice, you need to give thought to how you ask for it.

  2. How should you phrase the question?

    It’s important to avoid questions that are either too narrow or too vague. If you have a bad relationship with your boss and you want advice on what to do, asking, “Should I leave my job?” is too broad a question and, “Is it hard to find a new job these days?” is too vague. Instead, asking, “How can I improve my relationship with my boss?” or, “Do you know if other companies are hiring in my field?” is likely to solicit more useful thoughts. For the best advice, you might want to consider posing the essence of the problem directly—without suggesting possible solutions: “I’m having trouble with my boss and I’m unhappy at work. Any advice on what I could do?” Of course, you still have to consider who you’re asking.

  3. Is the person relatively objective?

    Give thought to whether the topic is one about which the person has strong feelings—and how their feelings might influence the advice they give you. If you’re asking what to do about an argument with your partner, it’s better to ask a friend who is in a stable relationship rather than one who has never dated anyone for longer than a few months. This is why we’re often drawn to ask advice from people who have specific knowledge on the issue at hand.

  4. Is the person an expert?

    Expertise can be a double-edged sword. Experts may know a lot about the subject matter, but they can have very emphatic opinions. Asking a fashion blogger advice about wedding gowns can be useful if he or she suggests the best options for your budget—not if they deliver a soliloquy on their favorite designer and insist you’d be a fool to consider wearing anything else. One way to get around a overly emphatic opinion is to seek consensus.

  5. How many people should you ask?

    When I had to choose a photo of myself for this blog (which would also be the picture on the jacket-cover of my new book) I selected three photographs and sent them to 15 people, asking each to choose their favorite and least favorite. Needless to say, every single picture was ranked as favorite and least favorite by at least four people—which made my survey useless in terms of making a decision. (I ended up choosing the one my agent thought was best—you can see it on the top right hand corner of this article.) Having many opinions does not always promise clarity. It’s best to ask a handful of people whose opinion you value rather than ask many people and risk confusing the issue further.

Advice is a relatively simple life issue. To learn about science–based techniques for managing common but more challenging experiences such as loneliness, loss, and low self-esteem, check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

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Copyright 2014 Guy Winch

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