The Best Way to Provide Unsolicited (and Difficult) Advice

 In Expert Tips & Info, Psychology

We often observe traits and behaviors in others that we think should be “correctable.” When we see them, but aren’t asked to provide feedback, it can be agonizing to keep from stepping in anyhow. If people ask for advice, that’s one thing. But what if they’re going merrily on their way, not realizing the impact their behavior has on others, and themselves? By correcting them, we feel that we’re doing them a favor, but it still feels wrong anyhow.

Consider this example. If only your daughter’s best friend knew not to eat food off of her knife, she would be so much more impressive when she’s eating out with strangers. In fact, you learn that she’s been invited to an important job interview in which a lunch meal will be part of the schedule. Cringing at the thought of her gulping down with gusto her Caesar salad from her steak knife (a major etiquette faux pas), you weigh back and forth in your mind the conversation you’d like to have with her:

“Jessica,” you would begin, “Do you realize that it’s not considered good manners to eat off of your knife? For that interview, be sure to eat off your fork instead.”

Rehearsing this conversation in your mind, it just sounds harsh. Obviously, this wonderful young woman, with whom you’ve shared many meals, would be thinking that she’s looked like a fool all this time. She will interpret your attempt to intervene as judgmental if not deeply embarrassing to her, and you’ll do nothing but alienate a perfectly good friend of the family from your life. Because you can’t formulate the words you would need to use, you decide it’s not worth the risk, and Jessica saunters off to her job interview none the wiser.

Let’s consider another situation, which is even dicier than the table manners. Let’s say that Jessica likes to wear tank tops and low-cut V-neck shirts that reveal her ample cleavage. Without any apparent self-consciousness, she appears regularly at your home in what, back in your youth, would have been considered trashy or slutty. Now, however, it seems as thoughalmost all young women are being enticed by marketers to reveal more and more skin as skirts get shorter and tops get lower and tighter. Jessica has wholeheartedly embraced this trend.

Knowing that Jessica has become a fashion victim to these social influences, you begin to worry what on earth she would possibly wear to that job interview. You’ve seen her in enough outfits on enough occasions to feel quite confident that            she’ll simply dig into her closet and pull out one of her tiny tanks. She might have the wherewithal to throw on a jacket, but it won’t be enough, you fear.

How is this conversation going to go? “Jessica,” you begin, “You know that for your interview you should wear a high-necked top or buttoned-up button-down shirt.” Then what? Where do you go from there? You’ve commented now on a very personal aspect of her appearance, and from her point of view, for no good reason. Her friends all dress this way, and she should be able to dress however she wants, so who are you to be telling her what to do?

As a final example, consider Jessica’s use of language. She peppers her conversation with the word “like” so often that it’s almost impossible to follow what she’s actually trying to say. “So, like, I thought, like, what should I, like, do, tomorrow? Like I want to go, like shopping, but, like, I also have some studying, like, to do.” You imagine the interview: “I’d, like, like the job because, like, I like, like, to meet, like, new people.” There were more “like’s” in her answer than actual substantive words.

Now to your intervention: “Jessica, you use the word ‘like’ too often. If you want the job, you’ll need to stop doing that.”

Here again, though your advice is well-intentioned, you’re sure it’s going to fall flat. Jessica will feel that she can’t even open her mouth without you sitting there in judgment, ready to pronounce her deficient.

Clearly, when you care about people, there are times when you need to offer painful advice. How to balance your good intentions against the possible harm your advice, especially when it’s unsolicited, might provide?

According to University of California Davis communications researcher Bo Feng, the best advice begins with an expression of emotional support. Feng (2014) notes that advice “is a near-ubiquitous component of supportive interactions” (p. 913). To ensure that your advice will be accepted, he suggests that it follow the “Integrated Model of Advice-Giving (IMA),” in which advice is preceded by an expression of caring and regard for the other person’s self-esteem. The alternative is to state the problem in a more analytic manner and then provide some emotional reassurance before delivering the advice. A third option is to dive right in and get the painful moment over with as quickly as possible.

One aspect of Feng’s (2014) study was to compare residents of mainland China with Americans to see whether Americans were particularly in need of emotional reassurance by their advice-givers. His study of over 1000 participants (half from each country) supported the IMA for members of both cultures. Advice-givers need to show their emotional support for the recipient, provide justification for the advice, and then offer the advice, in that order. This is particularly true when the recipient didn’t ask for the advice.

Returning to the case of Jessica, we can now see how the IMA can provide a useful set of guidelines. In each of the three cases where you believe Jessica needs help, you want to begin by showing how much you care about her. “Jessica, I really want you to do well in this job interview,” you can begin, “I think you’re a great person and you should be able to nail it.” This is the support component. Next, move to analysis: “I’ve noticed that you tend to eat from your knife/wear low-cut tops/say the word ‘like’”. Many people react negatively to these behaviors. If you want to get a job, it’s important to … [insert the relevant behavior]. Now the advice: Perhaps we can figure out a way to help you make these small changes in the way you eat/dress/talk so that you get the job.”

It might seem odd for you to speak this way to Jessica, as it may seem unduly formal or clumsy. If so, practice these phrases aloud. Role play with someone else who knows Jessica, such as your daughter, who you should bring in on the problem early in the game anyhow, because if she strenuously objects, you’ll have to bow out (or ask her to intervene). The chances are that if you approach it from a positive perspective, though, she’ll get on board with your plan.

One last note: Before you set out on your advice-giving mission, ask yourself whether your desire to give advice comes from a true interest to help the other person or out of your own need to control the behavior of the people around you. Do you need Jessica to get that job for Jessica, or because you want to feel that you can make a difference in someone else’s life? The willingness to provide difficult advice is laudable but only if its intention is to help the other person.

Advice-giving is one of the ways that people can truly express their concern for others. By framing it properly, you’ll ensure it helps those in your life achieve the fulfillment you desire for them.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D
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