4 Great Ways to Get Your Partner to Follow Your Advice

New study suggests 4 steps to make advice to your partner likely to be heeded.

Posted Sep 26, 2020

Your partner is asking your advice on what to wear to a job interview—or at least, what to wear on the half of them that's visible in a video call. Instantly, you roll out a lengthy explanation of everything you’ve ever read or experienced about impression management in these newly normal situations. You even try to take into account what you know about your partner’s sartorial strengths and weaknesses such as the fact that your partner feels more comfortable in black. Although wearing black is generally a video call no-no, you come up with what you think is the perfect compromise of a dark shirt with a pop of color.

Unfortunately, the interview day comes along and the pop of color is left untouched in the drawer. Where did you go wrong? Was there a better way to word your suggestions? As it turns out, there will be a next time because your partner didn’t get the job after all. Sadly, there’s no way of proving you would have been right, but you’ve got your hunch that the all-black look was a bit too funereal for the occasion.

Before pivoting to plan your strategy for the next advise-and-consent session with your partner, it might be worth thinking about what happens when you give advice to people with whom you’re not all that close. Perhaps a friend asks you to provide feedback on the college admissions essays written by her daughter. Gladly you agree, because you’d like to help and you’ve just gone through the process with someone else in your family. The essay arrives in your inbox, and you find it littered with typos and vague responses. Yet, a week after you send it back to the mother filled with questions and suggested edits, you hear nothing back. The next time you and your friend chat, that essay is never mentioned again. “But,” you say to yourself, “my advice was so perfect!”

Now you’ve got to ask yourself the serious question of what it is about you that makes your advice fall so flat. Advice should seem to be a straightforward matter. When your partner gives you advice, you take it, don’t you? Why wouldn’t your own advice be just as welcome?

As it turns out, there is an art to advice-giving—and now there is science to back that up as well. The “art” part involves knowing how to word your advice so that it can be heard. No matter how much of an expert you may be on any given topic, if your words of wisdom are to hit home, they need to be phrased carefully.

Think about the last time you did not follow someone’s advice. Perhaps you felt it was too intrusive. Maybe it was said in a patronizing manner and made you feel so, well, dumb, that you ignored it altogether. You might also have felt it was too “preachy” and dictatorial.

According to a new study by Xin Qin and colleagues (2020) of Sun Yat-Sen University, part of being a good leader—a role which certainly includes giving guidance—involves the ability to show your humility. There is virtual consensus, the Chinese authors argue, that people “react positively to humble leaders” in terms of their productivity and satisfaction. If this were to apply to the kind of leadership you show as an advice-giver, it would mean that you would qualify your words with phrases such as “I’m not sure if this will work, but give it a try.”

As you can see from this example, offering advice with this kind of language could have a downside. It's possible that you now sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about. The person receiving the advice therefore would have no reason to look to you as the expert, making your advice easy to dismiss as worthless.

Accordingly, Qin et al. regard humility as a double-edged sword, at least in the leadership world. To understand why this might be, the authors refer to attribution theory, a perspective in social psychology that points to the way people constantly interpret behavior, both their own and that of others. A leader who seems too humble, from this vantage point, could unwittingly lead others to make what would become the self-serving conclusion that they deserve special treatment because they actually know more than the people who are supposed to be in charge.

This idea of the self-serving bias means that your advice-giving approach has, somehow, to adopt a balance between too much and too little humility. Enough humility to avoid being overbearing but not so much as to trigger a sense of superiority in those you're trying to counsel. The understanding of this process comes from an approach in organizational psychology known as leader-member exchange (LMX), or the idea that the qualities of the leader interact with the qualities of the member to produce certain outcomes.

From the LMX perspective, good advice would therefore have enough humility to be digestible but not so much as to reinforce the self-serving bias in those you try to counsel with your wisdom. Qin and colleagues tested their double-edged sword model in one field-based and one experimental study. The field study was conducted over a 2-week period among alumni of several large Chinese universities. The 275 employees in this study averaged 32 years old, slightly over half were female, and they represented a range of industries. The college alums were asked to report on the humility of their leaders, why their leaders showed humility (when they did), how entitled they felt, and whether they resisted adhering to workplace policies.

The second study used an experimental method on 161 working adults in which the researchers used fictitious research descriptions to lead one group of participants to believe that when leaders are humble, it's because their employees are actually better than they are ("Supervisors engage in humble behaviors because of their subordinates’ strengths and abilities.)" The mindset created by this condition should, from an LMX perspective, lead employees to feel entitled to better treatment from their humble leaders. As in the first study, participants also reported on their tendency to flout workplace rules and regulations. 

Across the two studies, the results confirmed the prediction that humility in a leader only works when the people being supervised didn’t make that self-serving attribution of being better than their bosses. When participants believed that supervisors were humble when subordinates were better than them, their entitlement scores were higher as was their tendency to rebel. From the LMX perspective, then, humble advice only works when the recipient doesn't attribute the humility to weakness on the part of the advice-giver.

The Chinese research provides an excellent model for workplace relationships, and also suggests 4 practical ways you can put the findings to use when you’re the one trying to help shape the behavior of your partner through the advice you provide:

1. Consider who you’re advising. The Qin et al. study emphasized leader-member exchange. Research on couples also supports the idea that relationships reflect interactive processes within dyads. If you know your partner responds well to your advice, then yours will be better received, but you need to pay careful attention to how you’re coming across.

2. Establish your authority but don’t go overboard. That double-edged sword of humility shown in the workplace study can apply also to close relationships. If you heap too much advice on your partner out of a position of your own perceived superiority, you’ll come off as offensive. However, if you’re too reticent and tentative, your words of wisdom will come across as weak.

3. Be respectful. Whenever you’re giving advice, recognize that the other person knows something too. If you make your partner feel inadequate or inept, you’ll only put your partner on the defensive. Walking back from that position could be very difficult, if not impossible.

4. Allow yourself to hear feedback. Maybe your advice is great. Maybe it’s not. Consider the possibility that either the advice itself was flawed or the delivery left a great deal to be desired. Use this feedback as you navigate the next advice-giving session, and try to tailor your help accordingly.

Returning to the example of that ill-fated interview outfit, now go back and ask yourself whether you didn't go far enough in establishing your knowledge base when it comes to impression management. Perhaps add to your advice an example from a time that you turned down a "man in black" for a position you were trying to fill. This will help establish a basis for the legitimacy of your advice without coming across as overbearing.

To sum up, people advise each other all the time. When it comes to your partner, you undoubtedly have his or her best interests in mind. By following these 4 steps, you’ll allow those best interests to shine through.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Qin, X., Chen, C., Yam, K. C., Huang, M., & Ju, D. (2020). The double-edged sword of leader humility: Investigating when and why leader humility promotes versus inhibits subordinate deviance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(7), 693–712. doi: 10.1037/apl0000456