Advice, whether being given or taken, can be risky. What worked for one person in a given set of circumstances at a particular time may not be appropriate for another person at the same time or for the same person in a different set of circumstances, nor for either at a different time.
Good advice comes from striking the right balance between the dictates of necessity and the inherent risks of the situation. Before advice is acted on both the advisor and the seeker must be aware of what the problem really is, what specifically needs to be done to solve it, and the possible risks involved. This requires comparing the existing circumstances to the experiences from which the advice is being drawn, and then making the necessary adjustments to accommodate any differences; and in most cases there will be differences.
This article is cast in the form of giving advice; but when advice is being given it’s also being received. So all of the aspects of advice discussed here should be considered and adjusted appropriately depending on whether you’re on the giving or the receiving end. But we’ll start with some of the elements of successfully receiving advice.
The most important consideration when receiving advice is to determine whether the people who are giving it are competent to do so. If you don’t already know, you will have to find out if their qualifications and experiences are appropriate in your circumstances. A person who gives financial advice to multi-national corporations may be totally inappropriate to advise you on what you should do with a small inheritance. There are far more people ready to give advice than there are people qualified to do so; as my father was fond of saying, don’t take carpentry advice from a guy with missing fingers.
It’s a good idea to get more than one opinion if you can, and there will be times when advice simply shouldn’t be followed. You should be wary of accepting advice that seems to be the exception to what most people are saying or doing. The best way to evaluate the advice you receive is, as already mentioned, to consider the qualifications of its source and then decide whether your advisor followed the guidelines discussed below for giving advice. So let’s get to them.
When giving advice you must first consider the mindset of the seeker. Most people willingly accept advice, no matter how valid it may be, only if it doesn’t seriously interfere with what they were going to do anyway. So find out, as subtly as possible so as not to damage the spirit in which the advice is being sought and given, if the person asking is simply looking for confirmation of a decision that has already been made or whether they genuinely want guidance and still have an open mind. If it’s the former, and it’s obvious that the chosen course of action is appropriate, then it’s best just to agree with it. On the other hand, if the seeker’s mind is already made up to follow a course of action that’s clearly inappropriate, you’ll not only have to apply all the rules of successful advice-giving, but you’ll also need a hefty supply of diplomacy and tact in order to allow the advice-seeker to save face and willingly accept your advice. Relationships can be damaged by the manner in which well-intentioned advice was offered or taken.
If you’re unsure about the mindset of the seeker you have to ask questions, and lots of them. Asking the right questions is the best way to place the problem being discussed in its proper context; which, of course, is essential to the formulation of appropriate advice.
When giving advice it’s not enough to speak (or write) in a way that can be clearly understood; you have to speak or write so that you cannot be misunderstood. The best way to achieve this is to remember that just as a picture is worth a thousand words, one specific is worth a dozen generalities. You also have to speak or write in terms of the other person’s interests and at their level of expertise. You probably know more about the subject than they do, or else they wouldn’t be asking for your advice. Use simple, clear, specific language that they will understand. What might be abundantly clear and perfectly understandable to you may be utterly confusing to someone else, and they may be too embarrassed to tell you that you’re going too fast or that they have no idea what the buzz words you’re using mean.
Positive advice is a lot easier to take than negative advice. Find ways to be strongly in favour of a position you agree with rather than to just be against all other positions.
If you’re not equipped to give solid advice on a problem, recommend the seeker to someone whom you know will be able to help. That’s often the best advice of all.
Most, if not all, of what’s been said above applies whether the advice is being actively sought or is being dispensed gratuitously. However, when you discover that someone needs advice before that person has cottoned on to that fact, extra caution is required.
People resent having advice shoved down their throats, no matter how reasonable and beneficial it might be. People like to have their own ideas considered and respected; which, of course, is a basic human right to which we’re all entitled. The trouble is that logic alone seldom convinces the unwilling. In a battle between logic and emotion, emotion is usually the victor.
If your manner, tone of voice or choice of words irritate people, they will not willingly accept your advice, no matter how well its logic is presented. Before gratuitous advice will be accepted, the potential recipient must be in a receptive mood, both emotionally and intellectually. So both the manner in which the advice is given and the timing of the advice are critical to success.
The best way to achieve the right mood is to avoid a superior attitude, let the other person save face, and be positive; emphasizing what should be done rather than what shouldn’t be done. Work with the other person to solve the problem and come up with the answers together if you can. Whenever possible let other people think that at least some of the ideas are their own.
There are three times when advice should never be given to anyone. Never give advice to people when they are tired, when they are angry, or immediately after they’ve made a mistake. It’s also a pretty good idea not to give advice when you are tired, angry or have just made a mistake.
In the realm of advice, no matter how a question might be phrased when your advice is being sought, the question that’s really being asked is, “What would you do if you were me?” The operative words here are “if you were me”. You’re not really being asked what you would do if “you were you”. You must translate “what would you do” into “what should I do.” It is at this point that differences in circumstances and personalities, timing, and any other relevant facts, have to be taken into consideration. What worked in one set of circumstances may not work in a similar set, even if only one minor factor is different. Circumstances are often similar but rarely identical, personalities are never identical, and timing can be critical.
This doesn’t mean that advice should never be given unless all facts are identical, personalities are sufficiently similar and the timing is perfect; far from it. What it does mean is that advice has to be tailored to suit the circumstances and personalities involved, and the timing has to be appropriate.