The best advice for giving advice

(ThinkStock Photos)(ThinkStock Photos)
If you're looking for advice, don't ask Mr. T. "I don't give advice," the '80s muscle man famously said. "Dr. Phil gives advice. Mr. T helps people. I motivate them, I inspire them, I give them hope, and I plant the seed so they can feel good about themselves." That's some good advice for giving advice. When offering your opinion on other people's dilemmas, encouragement is more important than answers.

"The way advice is given can inadvertently increase the receiver's resistance to hearing it or acting on it," writes behavior specialist Jeffery Pfeffer on BNET. "You want the advisee to come away with good advice, rather than bad feelings about the advisor." That's a tall order when you're forced to weigh in on touchy situations. But there are some tried-and-true tactics for giving feedback in five challenging situations. The best advice, of course, depends on the question.

Question 1: "What should I do with my life?" It's the kind of question you can't answer. Even if you're their mentor, your advisees needs to choose their path independently, and too much coaxing in any direction will make them feel like decisions were made for them, not by them. The best thing to do is offer the road map to the answer.

Don't say: "Follow your heart." That's the kind of nebulous advice no one really understands.

Do say: "Follow your heart, gut, and head." According to psychologist Christine Meinecke, your heart, and feelings, aren't the only factors at play in major decisions. Your head, or intellect, and your gut, or intuition, are also vying for a word in edgewise. "Gleaning available information from all three realms is essential to making good decisions," writes Meinecke in Psychology Today. Have your advisee write out what their feelings, intellect and intuition all are saying. Putting it down on paper will help organize the kind of scattered thoughts that cause anxiety and ultimately, indecision.

The next step for them is weighing the three options. Which make the most sense to follow? Meinecke has some unusual advice when it comes to what the heart wants: skip it. "Leave feelings out of it," she suggests. "When we let feelings dictate decisions, we act on primal urgings." This can lead to choices with long-term consequences for the sake of an instant high. Instead she offers this credo: "Instead of following your heart, use your head and trust your gut."


Question 2: "Should I stay in this relationship?" It's the question no one wants to have to answer. Unless your friend is in a dangerous circumstance, it's impossible to come to a conclusion on his or her behalf.

Don't say: "Yes" or "No."
"For one thing, when someone makes a recommendation for or against a particular option, a decision maker may feel like they have lost a bit of their independence in making a choice," says cognitive psychologist Art Markman, Ph. D. The last thing you want is to be blamed for someone else's romantic decisions. If things work out and you had doubts, they'll think you're bad for their relationship.

Do Say: "What do you want?" "When giving advice, it is best to get a sense of what the person asking really wants," says Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. "Sometimes people ask for advice when what they really want is confirmation that they are doing the right thing." Responding to their question with your question, will give them pause and a moment to figure out what they're really getting at. If they seem to be leaning toward a decision, try to support it. What you don't want to do is play devil's advocate, especially if the question comes on the heels of the triggered event. "Someone who is looking for confirmation will tend to discount any opinion that differs from the one they have already formed," says Markman. "This happens a lot when people are in a 'hot' emotional state. Right after a fight with a significant other or a breakup, people are not really in a state to take advice. At that point, it is better to empathize and wait to give advice until the person has cooled off."


Question 3: "Should I make this purchase?"
If your friends want advice on buying a home, a car or any other major purchase that will affect their daily lives, there's only one way to help: provide information.

Don't say: "Go for it!" You may take the fall for their poor choice with this kind of response. "Recommendations about how to go about making the choice may also make a decision maker feel a loss of independence," says Markman.

Do say: "Let's look at all the pros and cons of making the purchase."
"There is a lot of evidence that people feel better about decisions when they are able to give a reason for making the choice," says Markman. "Information provides a good justification for a choice." It also makes the advisee take responsibility for the decision. Provide him with links to comparison shopping sites so he can familiarize himself with the market. Make a list together of the benefits of the purchase and a second list of ways the purchase might be a hindrance. Then have him circle the most important items on both lists. If either list has more circles, it will illuminate an answer he'll feel he's come to on his own.


Question 4: "How do I complete this task?"
If you're offering advice in a work situation, the way you respond could determine your future as colleagues.

Don't say: "I can't believe you don't know how to do this. I'll show you."
That person will never ask you anything again. Even if offering advice takes a little time away from other tasks, there are many benefits to being the 'go-to' person. You'll be the first to hear of their work-related decisions, they'll trust you with private information and they'll probably help you out when you're in a tight spot. Remember: even if they're below you in ranking, roles change fast.

Do say: "Thanks for coming to me. I had this problem too. I'm happy to show you." When someone turns to you for guidance in work, you've got to think like Mr. T, not Dr. Phil. "There really is a difference between coming across as authoritative as opposed to authoritarian," explains Pfeffer, who starts off every piece of advice with a moment of gratitude. "[Thanking someone] is one of the best ways to deepen a relationship, because it's a mutually gratifying human interaction and flattering without being obsequious." It also helps to follow up your advice with an opportunity for questions. "Often the best advice is created in an iterative way, rather than being delivered from on high," writes Pfeffer. "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."


Question 5: "Should I give your best friend a job?"
Every now and then, your advice comes with a strong opinion that you'd really like to impart. If you think your friend is great for the job but you also know your feedback could appear one-sided, play down your motives.

Don't say: "Yes, you should and I'll be so grateful if you do." Then there's an implied obligation or personal favor. Too much enthusiasm invalidates your role as advisor.

Do say: "I'll give you my honest opinion if you buy me a cup of coffee." Studies suggest that if a person feels like he's paid for advice, he's more likely to take it. The amount spent isn't the issue, what's important is that the advisee feels like he's getting the real deal. Setting aside a little time, and reframing their question as if you were doing the favor, will bring more gravity to your opinion.