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What to Do When Your Partner Won't Take Your Advice

Why it hurts when your partner won’t take your advice and what to do about it.

Key points

  • Advice-giving is an interpersonal process, making it a key part of all relationships.
  • Research shows the typical outcomes the advisors experience when their wisdom is ignored.
  • Avoid letting a rejection damage your relationship by understanding the dynamics of advice-giving.

People give advice to each other all the time in all kinds of relationships. Whether it’s with your closest romantic partner, a family member, or a co-worker, it’s likely that advice-giving is a frequent aspect of your many interactions. Your partner asks, “Should I wear this outfit today?” You suggest something else you consider more attractive. Much to your surprise, your partner responds, “That’s okay, I’ll stick with my original choice.” Inwardly, you feel annoyed, but you decide to let it go as it’s not that important. But what if this is a regular pattern? What if your partner never listens to you, on matters small or large?

Perhaps the person who ignores your advice isn’t as close to you as your romantic partner, but is an important individual in your life, nonetheless. You might have a relative who asks you for advice in planning a (socially distanced) family picnic. You spend several hours researching various potential sites, putting together a menu, and coming up with some activities. To your annoyance, however, the relative thanks you but then goes in a completely different set of directions. All of your efforts were a total waste of time.

When people ask for advice, but then don’t take it, you can be left feeling either irrelevant or, even worse, snubbed. If it’s the same person over and over who puts you in this position, you may start to ask yourself the classic question, “Is it me, or is it you?” Maybe your advice isn’t that bad but this person is just essentially “unadvisable.”

Advice-seeking Is an Interpersonal Process

According to a 2019 paper by Harvard Business School’s Hayley Blunden and colleagues, “Disregarding advice is a common behavior,” with as many as half the employees surveyed in a pilot study reporting that they pay no attention to advice, even when it was the employees who sought the advice in the first place. As Blunden et al. note, such behavior by advice-seekers can “expose them to unanticipated, adverse relational consequences” (pp. 83-84), due to the offense they cause the advice-giver.

The purpose of advice-seeking, the Harvard researchers go on to explain, is to narrow down a set of choices. You, the advice-giver, are in the position to help the seeker figure out the best of those choices. It seems reasonable for you to assume that the seeker actually does value your opinions and, furthermore, values your relationship. After all, as Blunden and her colleagues note, “Advice-seeking is inherently interpersonal” when it comes to deciding who best to approach for guidance (p. 84).

Unlike asking for help, asking for advice puts the potential giver in the position of expending effort that may not end up being used, as the Harvard team observes. When you were asked about how best to plan that family picnic, you had to take the time to prepare your advice. Even an email asking you for help in making some type of suggestion, such as when a friend wants to know how to smooth things over with another friend, involves your having to take the time to think before you provide a reply. According to the Harvard researchers, when you do respond, your ego becomes involved because, after all, you think your advice is probably pretty good. Rejection of that advice, therefore, threatens that positive self-regard.

Research Uncovers the Dynamics of Advice-Seeking

Across a series of nine studies, the Harvard researchers developed and then tested a model that predicts the conditions in which rejection of an advisor’s advice would cause the most harm to a relationship. In some studies, the advisor was an expert, and in others, the advice was purportedly offered by multiple sources. As you can imagine, rejection of advice-giving should be particularly hard on you as the advisor when the seeker doesn’t recognize your expertise and, further, decides to listen to someone else rather than you.

All of the studies except for one were conducted in an online format in which the researchers presented participants with scenarios that placed them in the position of a rejected advisor. Reactions to this rejection in interpersonal terms became the outcome variables. In one of the studies, however, the data were collected in a lab setting that very much approximated a real-world situation.

The research team placed their 292 undergraduate students in the lab study (average age, 30 years old and 42 percent male) into one of three conditions involving the results of an imaginary advice-giving scenario: “advice followed,” “advice not followed,” and “control” (results not known). The scenario posed this situation to the participant:

“Imagine one of your more junior colleagues, John, approaches you for career advice. You and John are not on the same team, but you work in a similar area and encounter each other multiple times each day at work. You take a few hours to reflect on and document what has been helpful thus far, and you schedule a time to meet with John in the next week. At your meeting, you walk through a specific plan that you think John could follow to be successful. When you leave, John thanks you for the advice and says, “I look forward to keeping in touch in the future.” John ends up [does not end up] taking your advice. [You do not know whether John ended up taking your advice.]” (p. 87).

The outcome measures in this experimental study included how offended respondents were (e.g. “I was insulted”), change in their relational closeness to John, and their willingness to continue the relationship (“I would give [the advisee] advice in the future”). Consistent with the research team’s prediction, people whose advice wasn’t followed felt more offended and less willing to give advice in the future.

In the next study in the series, which examined the mechanisms underlying this distancing process, Blunden and her colleagues found that the rejected advisors felt worse about themselves and worse about the person seeking advice, leading the advisors to try to distance themselves psychologically from the unheeding advice-seeker. In other words, you don’t want to be around someone who makes you feel bad about yourself by ignoring your proffered wisdom.

What’s Really Going on When Someone Seeks Your Advice?

Turning now to the interpretation of the findings, it appears that the underlying dynamics of the advice-seeking situation would seem to provide a no-win set of outcomes. The advice-seeker, the Harvard researchers maintain, seeks to expand the possible set of choices as they gather information about their alternatives. However, the advice-seeker regards the purpose of the advice as narrowing down those choices. Returning to the analysis of advice-seeking the authors posed at the outset of the study, it seems that this fundamental set of conditions frames the basis for the hurt feelings that the advisor takes away from the interaction.

If hurt feelings and a desire to put distance between yourself and the advice-seeker are such an inevitable part of advice-giving, then, how can you best restore those damaged interpersonal bonds? The Harvard authors suggest (if you’d like to follow their advice) that you begin by using communication to “establish a shared reality—to experience commonality with others’ inner states and expectations about the world” (p. 94). When your partner asks you for sartorial recommendations, begin by recognizing that the question may be coming from an information-based perspective; that is, using you as a sounding board. You will then be less likely to put such high stakes on the outcome of that advice.

Perhaps you can take this one step further and put yourself into that “inner state and expectation.” When you ask someone for advice, are you always prepared to follow it? Don’t you, like the person asking you for advice, factor the response into a set of complex equations that only you know about? Sure, one outfit might look better than another on you, but what if you’ve worn that outfit so many times that you’re sick of it? Wouldn’t that make you less likely to choose that option now?

To sum up, it can indeed be frustrating and off-putting to have your advice ignored. However, understanding what’s involved when you’re placed in this situation can help you keep the interpersonal costs to a minimum, allowing your relationship to continue to flourish.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Blunden, H., Logg, J. M., Brooks, A. W., John, L. K., & Gino, F. (2019). Seeker beware: The interpersonal costs of ignoring advice. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 150, 83–100. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2018.12.002

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