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Five Reasons Advice Doesn’t Work and When It Might

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I remember many years ago going out for a morning run around Central Park in New York City. It was a crisp, blue-sky day, I had a lot of energy, the run was going well. Then a tall, male runner came blasting past me and shouted, “Don’t run on your toes!”

I spent the rest of the run fuming. How dare he! He didn’t know my body or how I needed to move. (Turns out, toe running isn’t such a terrible thing.) What gave him the right?

And who asked for his advice?

My husband and I have a friend, a great, multi-talented guy, who works extremely hard. He’s helped us a lot. But his habits of coffee, cigarettes, and energy drinks didn’t seem very health-friendly, at least from our not-particularly-humble perspective. We debated whether we should say something.

We wondered again when we found out that he’d had a small heart attack last weekend.

Trouble is, unsolicited advice rarely works.

Five Reasons Advice Doesn’t Work

  1. It hasn’t been requested, When someone is not open or curious to receive new information, your great suggestions aren’t going to make a difference. What’s worse they can turn people defensive.
  2. We don’t fully understand the context. Lives are complex. Understanding context requires understanding:
    • someone else’s background and experiences;
    • the emotional context–how someone is feeling today (nothing worse than a fresh piece of advice on a bad hair day);
    • external variables affecting them such as family, finances, and commitments.
  3. You might be wrong. (It happens from time to time.) Advice often assumes you know more than they do. It’s so tempting to talk from a place of superior insight. What happened to humility?
  4. Advice aborts questions. Advice, too firmly given, keeps us from digging deeper into questions. Often, we need to ask “why?” before we ask (or advise) “how.”
  5. Advice rarely touches the heart–the real power center for change. The person you are talking to needs to feel the imperative of change in their bones. They need to be able to envision the change, hear the change, taste the change…and feel the pain of not changing, before they may be willing to act.

When you can give advice

In certain circumstances, you can give advice.

  • When someone sincerely asks for it and is open and receptive. (Or signs up for advice.)
  • When you can treat them as a peer who will consider whether your advice is right for them. You are offering advice, not prophecy!
  • When they plan to take action. (If they don’t, why bother?)
  • When the timing is right (Not when there’s a crisis, the soup’s about to boil over, or they’ve just listened to the State of the Union.)

Of course, there’s one more scenario in which you can offer advice.

  • When your husband really needs to make a change. (I couldn’t resist–although he tried to edit this out!)

Fortunately for our friend, his heart attack apparently hasn’t caused permanent damage, but It did give him all the advice he needed to make a change.

And I bet that advice will stick!






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