The Problem with Giving Advice

Christopher Witt —  January 11, 2013

I often think that the world would be a happier, saner place if everyone followed my advice. Sadly, I’ve learned over the years that an alarming number of people disregard the advice I give so freely. And I’ve realized, belatedly and grudgingly, that it’s a good thing that people don’t always do what I advise.

Then I recall all the advice people have given me over the years and how much of it I’ve resented, rejected, or ignored. Sometimes to my woe. Sometimes to my well-being.

And I wonder: Should I offer advice at all? Whether it’s asked for or not?

That is a daunting question for a consultant, a professional who makes his living, for the most part, by giving advice.

I can change the language so it doesn’t sound like I’m giving advice. I can say, instead, that I’m giving people information, insight, support, and recommendations that they can accept or reject, adopt or adapt, in order to solve their problems. But however you parse it, I’m giving them advice, which the New American Heritage Dictionary defines as “opinion about what could or should be done about a situation or a problem.”

When an executive asks me how to start a speech, for example, I give her several options, and we talk about the pluses and minuses of each. Given the nature of the speech and her preferences, I may make a specific recommendation. I might even tell her what not to do. As in, “Do not start with a joke.” What I’m doing, of course, is giving advice. She’s free to disregard my advice, but that’s what she’s paying me for: my experience, expertise, knowledge, and — if you will — my wisdom distilled and applied to her situation.

I do people a disservice (and I tie myself up in knots) only when I insist that they heed my advice. That’s the trap. That’s my ego. That’s my pride at work.

The original meeting of advice, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the way things are looked at or regarded.” That’s what I have to keep telling myself (and my clients): the advice I offer is simply how I see things.

I like to think that my perspective — my way of seeing things — is well-considered, informed, and helpful, but it is always personal and partial. I can only see things from my angle, from where I stand, through the lens of my own assumptions and beliefs. And, like everyone else, I have blind spots.

I’m not going to stop giving advice. It’s not in my nature. But I am going to practice detachment — letting go of the need for (or is it the illusion of?) control. I can only offer advice; I can’t make people take it. And I’m going to keep my curiosity in play: exploring how other people see things.

Do you find yourself grappling with some of these questions? What works for you?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.