Sunday 13 May 2012

My advice on giving advice

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Advice (noun)

  1. Guidance or recommendations concerning prudent future action, typically given by someone regarded as knowledgeable or authoritative.
  2. Information; news.

What a wonderful word, what a wonderful concept. Information shared and distributed with no implicit or explicit requirements for acceptance; guidance offered in the hope it will useful but not under the pretense that it will be taken; recommendations, outlines, things to try; not mandatory, not ruling, not commanding.

Why then, does advice so often start a fight? Not an argument, not a debate, a fight — sometimes even a war. Why should insight — shared voluntarily or at request — bring with it such division and animosity?

I cannot say with certainty — my opinion has been developed from observational evidence only — but I believe most controversy is sparked either by incorrectly delivered or incorrectly labelled advice; advice delivered in a manner that makes it seem a declaration of rules, laws or commandments -or- rules, laws and commandments incorrectly labelled as advice.

I am a very non-confrontational person — this is not saying that I simply back down or let the world walk over me; I support my opinions strongly — and as a result I have come up with ways of delivering guidance that rarely, if ever, lead to conflict. Now, thanks to the wonder of free speech and internet, I would like to offer some of my advice for giving advice.

  1. Delivering advice is tricky and, even if you would carry your recommendations to the grave with you, some people will not accept it and sometimes flat-out disagree. Remembering the difference between a healthy debate and a heated argument is important. If your advice is not accepted, there is no harm in rephrasing and offering it again — this will let you know if the rejection was from lack of comprehension — but it is a good idea to avoid simply declaring somebody wrong because they disagree. You can try adding weight with additional arguments, but if you find that you cannot accept their refusal to accept, perhaps “advice” was not the best way to label your information.
  2. Limiting the use of forcing words and phrases (example: should, must, have to) is a great way to keep people at ease. If your advice is peppered with commanding words and phrases, the line between piece of advice and this is an order/ultimatum can blur, leading to your advice recipient taking up a defensive position. If they believe their choices have been boiled down to the binary “My way or Your way,” a defensive person can go from being ninety percent confident in their stance to one hundred percent confident in their stance. To say the human mind is complex is to understate it completely. Some interesting information on the strange ways the brain works can be garnered by looking into concepts like Attitude Polarisation and Confirmation Bias.
  3. When highlighting benefits through comparison, it is usually better to define the comparisons explicitly rather than lumping it all in a collective generalisation. As advice is often more subjective than objective, it is also recommended that the subjectivity of your statements be declared.

    To use a classic internet example:

    Oh, you would like to know whether to read Harry Potter or Twilight? Definitely go for Harry Potter because it has a better storyline and characters are more likeable.

    Statements similar to that above, although seemingly innocent, have been the fuel for fighting on social networks and forums for years.

    Oh, you would like to know whether to read Harry Potter or Twilight? Personally, I have enjoyed the storyline and characters in Harry Potter more than I have those in Twilight. I would suggest Harry Potter.

    The above will most certainly not stop all debate in its tracks, but it removes a lot of the potential for argument. The recommendation is given as a subjective suggestion right alongside a specific reason.
  4. When defining rules, try to keep them as rules of the advice or rules stated subjectively, rather than blanket rules.

    Instead of: ”Never use contractions in formal writing.

    Try: ”When I write formally, I make it a rule to not use contractions.
  5. Taking the time hear and respond to objections can help you strengthen your case. Refusing amicable discussion, or not providing a forum for it, can make even the best advice seem overbearing. There will be cases where your point needs to be heeded as a whole or not at all, but often, taking the time to discuss and compromise can see advice flowing in both directions and, even if both parties remain on their respective black and white sides, the resulting understanding can be invaluable.
  6. Sometimes, you may just have to discontinue advising someone. You may think you are offering the best alternative and your frustration levels will rise because you feel the other party is worse-off because of it, but advice, whether it is to be given or received, cannot be forced onto someone if they do not wish to heed it. Sometimes it is their loss, even from an objective viewpoint, but as soon as advice starts being forced, it is no longer advice.

Using these strategies — or combinations of them; remember that almost everything has an exception — I have worked selling telephony products door-to-door, on the telephone as the complaints supervisor, for an airline as the person who deals with the “escalated” (read: irate and unhappy) customer situations, and I am currently in a position where I must advise my superiors regularly on technical points that they do not immediately understand. All of these positions require advising people to change something that they are/were doing, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, this advice has been well received even when it is not taken.

Sometimes, conflicts cannot be avoided, and sometimes, advice is misread regardless of how careful you are when offering it. But most times, advice is just advice, and when delivered in a guiding way, will not start a war.

1 comment:

  1. How dare you presume to instruct me to not use contractions in formal writing?

    You should'nt've said that to me.