Instead of Giving Advice, Do This

We all have a psychological need for "autonomy" that advice clashes with.

Posted Nov 23, 2019

Teddy Pixel/Raw Pixels
Source: Teddy Pixel/Raw Pixels

Your friend is stressing out over a job loss and turns to you for support. What do you say? Many of us might offer advice: have you tried applying to ________ position? You should really start networking. Update your LinkedIn profile. 

Maybe our friend responds to our advice with gratitude: "Wow! I didn't think about that. Thanks so much!" But more than likely, our friend responds with a furrowed brow and a reluctance to share more. What went wrong?  What else were they looking for? 

Here's why advice often backfires: it challenges our psychological need for autonomy. Psychologist Ryan Deci developed self-determination theory, which outlines three major needs that all humans have: the need for competence (to feel accomplished, like you're good at something), relatedness (to belong, feel connected) and autonomy (control, the ability to make our own choices). 

When people offer us advice, they are implying that their perspective constitutes the decision we should make rather than offering us the choice to make the best decision for ourselves. In other words, advice challenges our need for autonomy. Given that some of Deci's research has found that when friends satisfy our need for autonomy, the friendship is stronger, offering advice, and impeding autonomy, can weaken friendships. 

Furthermore, Deci's research also finds that our psychological well-being benefits when we respect our friends’ autonomy. If you're not offering advice, you don't have the chance to be resentful when your friend ignores it and goes their own way. You might also feel more connected to your friend if they appreciated that you trusted them to make their own choice. 

Let's go back to your friend who just got laid off. Here are some alternatives to offer instead of advice: 

1) What has worked when you've job searched in the past? 

2) What do you see as the best option moving forward? 

3) What are some of your worries or concerns about being unemployed? 

4) What resources do you need to figure out what your next steps are? 

With these questions, we are trusting our friend to come up with their own advice, and simply guiding them along in the process. We are respecting our friend's need for autonomy—demonstrating that we trust our friend to reach their own conclusion. And that's all a friend can really ask for. 

References

Deci, E. L., La Guardia, J. G., Moller, A. C.,  Scheiner, M. J., & Ryan, R. M. (2006). On the benefits of giving as well as receiving autonomy support: Mutuality in close friendships. Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 313-327.