When it comes to ad­vice, it’s wise to both give and re­ceive sin­cerely

The Guardian Weekly - - Culture -

Here’s a solid gold piece of ad­vice: be wary of any­one of­fer­ing you solid gold pieces of ad­vice. The friend who ad­vises you to, say, stay in your re­la­tion­ship or leave your job may well be look­ing out for you; but she’s in­escapably look­ing out for her­self, too, whether she re­alises it or not. Maybe she be­lieves her own mar­riage was a case of set­tling, and wants you to join the club. Maybe she adores your com­pany so much she could never rec­om­mend a ca­reer step that might in­volve you leav­ing town.

More­over, re­search sug­gests that, in the ab­sence of in­cen­tives to the con­trary, peo­ple will gen­er­ally ad­vise you to act more cau­tiously than they would act them­selves in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion.

There’s a happy flip­side to this, though, for par­ents, teach­ers, man­agers and any­one else who finds them­selves in the po­si­tion of need­ing to mo­ti­vate oth­ers: far bet­ter than giv­ing them ad­vice is to give them the op­por­tu­nity to give ad­vice. That’s the con­clu­sion of a new study by psy­chol­o­gists at the uni­ver­si­ties of Chicago and Penn­syl­va­nia, who found that Amer­i­can mid­dle-school pupils were much more en­thu­si­as­tic about do­ing their home­work af­ter dis­pens­ing ad­vice on the topic to younger chil­dren, as com­pared with af­ter re­ceiv­ing ad­vice from teach­ers. This mo­ti­va­tional ef­fect lasted weeks, and was also ob­served among adults who were at­tempt­ing to lose weight, save money, con­trol their tem­per or find a job. Teach a man to fish and he’ll know how to fish – but get him to teach oth­ers how to fish, and he might ac­tu­ally get on with some damned fish­ing.

This re­sult isn’t all that sur­pris­ing, I sup­pose, when you con­sider how flat­ter­ing it feels to be in­vited to give ad­vice. Faced with a chal­lenge, we tend to as­sume we need to seek ad­vice in or­der to ob­tain more knowl­edge about how to pro­ceed; yet the truth, very of­ten, is that we know what we need to do – we just lack the con­fi­dence to do it. The act of giv­ing ad­vice reac­quaints us with the knowl­edge we al­ready pos­sess, which in­stils con­fi­dence, which mo­ti­vates ac­tion.

This, by the way, is an­other good rea­son to keep a journal: you can use it to ad­vise your­self. Your friends may have lim­ited pa­tience with your habit of lec­tur­ing them on their lives in or­der to feel bet­ter about your own, but a leather-ef­fect notebook never com­plains.

Fi­nally, this is a re­minder that there are few big­ger com­pli­ments you can pay an­other per­son than to ask, prefer­ably sin­cerely, for their ad­vice. And I should add that if you have any in­sights on this mat­ter your­self – what with you be­ing such a wise and thought­ful per­son, with such rich life ex­pe­ri­ence – I’m def­i­nitely all ears.

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