7 Tips for Giving Advice That People Will Follow

Last Updated Mar 24, 2010 2:30 PM EDT

Much has been said about how to deliver feedback, because giving it is so often fraught with anxiety. Bosses shy away from the negative, critical part, even though they know it's one of their most important responsibilities. But relatively little has been written about the art of giving good, old-fashioned advice. Unencumbered by some of the complications of performance reviews -- nothing official, nothing related to compensation or promotion, nothing necessarily critical or painful to hear -- well-intentioned advice should be a treat to give and to receive.

Why should you get better at giving advice? Lots of reasons: it's helpful to pass your wisdom on to others; it extends your own influence, regardless of whether you ever get "paid back"; it's a way to gain trust, stature and gravitas; and it's just plain gratifying to be valued for what's in your head. This is ego gratification of the very best sort.

So why do people who are sought for advice still manage to screw it up? In my experience, it's less about the quality of advice and more because of the way it's delivered. The way advice is given can inadvertently increase the receiver's resistance to hearing it or acting on it, which is such a shame, because that undoes the best of intentions. You want the advisee to come away with good advice, rather than bad feelings about the advisor. Here are four tips on how to give advice well. (Remember that giving it well doesn't necessarily make it good advice. Caveat emptor.) 1. Bear in mind the difference between solicited and unsolicited advice. Both are perfectly fine ways to be helpful, but remember that the unsolicited variety may not always be welcome, so the recipient might be more vulnerable to a bruised ego if you push the advice too far.

2. Say thank you before plunging in. This applies to solicited advice. Before offering any of your wisdom, express some gratitude for being asked. After all, it's flattering to be seen as wise and helpful. I don't know anyone who doesn't like being asked for advice. In fact, doing so is one of the best ways to deepen a relationship, because it's a mutually gratifying human interaction and flattering without being obsequious.

3. Make sure you understand the limits of the question. There's nothing more annoying than asking for advice on one thing (like "What do I need to do to get a promotion?") and getting advice on your marriage and your vacations plans, with a few golf tips thrown in. Stick to the subject at hand, unless somehow there's a connection.

4. Be confident, but not arrogant. This distinction is blurry for some folks. There really is a difference between coming across as authoritative (presumably the solicitor wouldn't be seeking your advice if they didn't think you knew your stuff) as opposed to authoritarian (using your power to compel someone to follow your advice, or being pathologically certain that you're always right). Being authoritative can be done with humility, like saying "I've seen a lot of situations like this, and I'm concerned that if you don't deal with this problem executive now, the damage will only get worse with time." An authoritarian way of giving the same advice might be, "Look, you have to get rid of that guy now, or else I'll do it for you." The latter is obnoxious, off-putting, and not helpful.

5. Give the recipient an "out." This is related to No. 4. While there's plenty of room for passion in the giving advice, a bit of humility also helps. You can say, for instance, that you've seen such-and-such approach work for yourself and for others, but it might not be for everybody. Or you can preface it with a turn of phrase like, "I'm not sure about this, but I think you could benefit from doing x, y, and z." Or my personal favorite: "Have you considered...?"

6. After giving advice, ask how it sounds. Often the best advice is created in an iterative way, rather than being delivered from on high. So after you're done expounding, ask the recipient if that makes sense, or how they might feel about acting on your advice. Their reactions can help you refine it together and make it even more meaningful.

7. Ask for follow-up. Not only does it show you care if you ask your advice-seeker to let you know how it goes, but it also conveys that you have a stake in giving good advice. Whether or not they take you up on the offer, it will leave them feeling even better about you and more confident in acting on what you've shared.

I've learned that giving advice is one of life's great pleasures, especially when it turns out that I was right. I'm also grateful for all the good advice I've received over the years.

Image courtesy Flickr user macfanmd, CC 2.0
  • Kerry Sulkowicz

    Kerry Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, advises CEOs, boards, and investors on psychological aspects of leadership in complex organizations. He helps companies with CEO succession, boardroom and senior team dynamics, human capital due diligence for investors, high-stakes hiring assessments, and the psychology of negotiation strategy. Kerry also advises large family-owned enterprises in the US and abroad. He is the founder and managing principal of the Boswell Group LLC, a consulting firm based in New York, and he has written columns on the psychology of business for BusinessWeek and Fast Company magazine. He is on the Faculty of the Psychoanalytic Institute at NYU Medical Center and is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.

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