If I Want Advice, I’ll Ask for It

Despite wanting to give advice, it might not be beneficial.

Posted Jan 11, 2021

We have all been recipients of unsolicited and unwanted advice; conversely, most of us have also given advice when it was not requested. Even when a person directly asks, “What should I do?” that question may not be an invitation to give advice. Many times it is prompted by a desire to be listened to, elicit sympathy, or problem-solve by thinking out loud rather than solicit advice (Feng & Magen, 2015). Being on the receiving end of unsolicited advice can be unpleasant; e.g., frustrating, unhelpful (Smith & Goodnow, 1999). Giving unsolicited advice risks damaging our close relationships, and even our professional relationships. It risks marital/relational dissatisfaction and strife, rejection, and loneliness. Professionally, it may lead to ineffective leadership or become an obstacle to advancement.   

Yet, if we are to be candid, most of us are likely to respond to the question of “What should I do?” with advice. We may do so even though there are clear red flags from the other person to stop talking (e.g., silence, irritation).

Why is giving advice, even when we know that it is unsolicited and unwanted, so alluring? There may be several reasons: 

  • Interpersonal power: Schaerer and colleagues (2018) suggest that advice-giving may enhance the advisor’s sense of influence over others. These researchers studied advice-giving in organizational settings; however, their findings have relevance to personal relationships. Advice makes the advisor believe that they are able to influence the behavior of others. Schaerer et al. hypothesized and found that individuals with a high tendency to seek power were more likely to give advice than those with a low tendency. Giving advice was characterized as a “subtle route to a sense of power” (p.1).
  • Over-value our opinions/undervalue others: Ironically, advice-givers may be advice rejecters. Such individuals, correctly or incorrectly, believe in the superiority of their own opinions over what others have to say. Researchers describe this motivation for advice-rejection as “egocentric discounting,” a process where the person places heavy emphasis on their own ideas and discounts what others have to say (Bonaccio & Dalal, 2006). In close relationships, this may translate to the advice-giver’s belief that they know “better than” the other person about how to make decisions.
  • Relevance and identity as the problem-solver. Those who give unsolicited advice tend to do so to people with whom they feel close, or they may believe that the advice will enhance interpersonal intimacy through serving a needed role to the advisee (i.e., the advice-giver is the advisee’s problem-solver). The advice-giver feels important while the advisee may feel diminished. Consequently, and paradoxically, giving advice may disrupt or decrease intimacy with the advice-giver.
  • Prompting feelings of incompetence. At all ages, those who received unsolicited advice perceived it as unpleasant primarily because they thought they were viewed as incompetent (Smith & Goodnow, 1999).

Because of the damaging consequences inherent to giving unsolicited advice, assessing when to speak and when to remain silent are skills well-worth learning. Here are some useful methods to consider.

Critical self-assessment. Assess whether power or personal relevance are your motives for giving advice by asking yourself the following:

  1. Is influencing another person often the reason why you give advice?
  2. Do you discount the ability of others to form opinions?
  3. Do you believe that you tend to know what is better for others than they do? 
  4. Is being the advice-giver and problem solver a prominent part of your self-identity?
  5. Are most of your relationships with others characterized by your role as advice-giver?
  6. Do you solicit advice from others, or do you tend not to share your problems and dilemmas?

Listen first, speak later. In order to know what another person wants when they appear to be seeking your opinion, do not put on your problem-solver hat. Don’t even ask, “Do you want me to give you an opinion or would you rather I just listen?” These questions may not be helpful. In fact, people’s social desirability impulses (e.g., being polite, pleasing) may lead the other person to say they were soliciting your opinion, even if that’s not what they wanted. Instead, consider asking, “What are your ideas on what to do?” This enhances their sense of competency through self-initiated problem-solving. Even if you have special expertise that they don’t, the pathway to their ability to integrate your opinions into action will be dependent on their ownership of the information that is given.

Understand the other person’s perspective. Consider engaging in perspective-taking. In other words, try to place yourself in the other person’s shoes so as to appreciate what they are experiencing. You may think you fully understand their problem, but many times we only have a snippet of understanding. Asking questions gives you a full picture, gives the recipient a sense of your genuine interest in them and their situation, and reduces the likelihood that they will feel irritated when you ultimately offer your opinion. Yaniv & Choshen-Hillel (2012) found that taking the perspective of others also reduces ego-centric discounting. Perspective-taking is also likely to enhance the advisee’s sense of you listening and being responsive to them. If the person genuinely wants your opinion, you will be able to give one that resonates with them, as it is based on their perspective and experience, not yours.

Admittedly, there may be instances when someone comes to you with the question, “What should I do?” and they really want your opinion. Don’t feel pressure to respond immediately and don’t worry that you will miss out on the opportunity to give useful and solicited advice. Listening, gathering information, understanding the situation, and providing an empathetic ear are all actions that enhance the usefulness and appreciation of the opinion given.  

References

Bonaccio, S. & Dalal, R. S. (2006). Advice taking and decision-making: an integrative literature review, and implications for the organizational science. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 101(2), 127-151. doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2006.07.001

Feng, B. & Magen, E. (2015). Relationship closeness predicts unsolicited advice-giving in supportive interactions. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 1, 1-17. DOI: 10.1177/0265407515592262

Schaerer, M., Tost, L. P., Huang, L., Gino, F. & Larrick, R. (2018). Advice giving: a subtle pathway to power. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(5), 746-761. doi.org/10.1177/0146167217746341

Smith, J., & Goodnow, J. J. (1999). Unasked-for support and unsolicited advice: Age and the quality of social experience. Psychology and Aging, 14(1), 108–121. doi: 10.1037//0882-7974.14.1.108.

Yaniv, I. & Choshen-Hillel, S. (2012). When guessing what another person would say is better than giving your own opinion: using perspective-taking to improve advice-taking. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(5), 1022-1028. DOI:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.03.016