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  • Writer's pictureBen C

WHY PEOPLE DON'T FOLLOW GOOD ADVICE (and what to do about it)

Updated: Jan 31, 2021

Do you ever get the impression that people don't follow your well-thought-out advice, given with an open heart, the wisdom of experience, or just a little clarity? It may well be that those same people have specifically asked for your counsel, but then find excuses to resist your best ideas, ignoring the time and effort you've taken to reflect, and to explain, and subsequently landing on their posteriors, as they were bound to do, by failing to act on your highly appropriate solutions.

On my first day of coach school, the teacher wrote the words "Coaching is an advice free zone" on a paperboard and my brain went into protection mode. This was one of those nonsense concepts I was going to have to play along with to become a coach, but that I would drop as soon as I was accredited. Yet the more we learned and the more we practiced, the more it became obvious that giving advice was having the opposite effect of the one I intended in pretty much all of my most important relationships. The advice actually appeared to be making people less likely to adopt the solutions I offered.

Imagine for a moment that rather than me having this revelation, it was you, and let's just play with the logic of this: if the very fact of you giving advice actually plays a role in the person you're advising ignoring it, and thus contributes to their subsequent negative outcome, you could reasonably argue that the people ignoring have made their choice and you've done your bit, clean hands; clean conscience, etc. Then again, having learned that giving advice has a negative impact on the people you're giving it to, but choosing to give the advice anyway, are you wilfully contributing to the suffering of others?

I'm messing with you. Giving advice may foster resistance but we all survive far worse and I've no intention of leading you down Guilt Alley, not least because I am damned by my lifetime of advice-giving, and we can all sit around feeling awful, or recognise the mechanisms of things going wrong, learn how to change course, and find better ways to support the people we care about, right? Easy. Are you in?

A painful (and non-exhaustive) list of mechanisms that mean advice has negative impact

A simple place to start is to spend a second remembering how annoying it feels when somebody gives you unwanted advice, particularly when they are unqualified to do so. Seriously, right now, think about that bitter and angry school teacher telling you how to behave with your friends, think about your most disliked boss telling you how you should deal with a family member they didn't even know, think about the kind stranger giving you a tip on how to stop your kid having a tantrum in the supermarket. The inappropriateness of the advice is fairly easy to spot. By giving advice, the person is presuming that he or she is better equipped to deal with your life than you are, despite lacking most of the context. The result is most commonly to ignore the advice giver, but also frequently to do the opposite of what they say, with raw need to defy an asshole!

Of course, not all advice comes from assholes, but it all has in common a demonstration that the advice-giver believes they are better placed to know how to act than the person they are advising, despite absolutely never having as much information on the context or what is at stake than the person they're talking to. And we justify this with easily retrievable arguments about having had a similar experience or having seen a million people go through this kind of thing and fall into the same pitfalls. Regardless of whether we are right or wrong, the other is already beating a pathway out of the zone of our influence, just as you would when people presume they know more about you than you do.

It gets a bit worse before it gets better

The next problem is that people who do follow your advice may in fact believe that you are better equipped than them to decide how to proceed. This advice can be a good thing, better than good in fact: necessary. When you take your car to the garage and you are not yourself a mechanic, it can be really useful to listen to what the expert has to say - it may save your life. When you take a serious medical issue to the doctor it can be a life-saving relief that somebody with greater experience and knowledge can help us make the toughest of choices. When you are too emotionally involved in a subject, the opinion of a friend one step back from your issue can bring untold help to finding a solution. But beware of falling into the temptation of believing that just because somebody asked you, that you are in a better position than them. Here's why:

Firstly, requested advice is a request for an opinion that can be acted upon or not according to the person making the request. Authority is given by the other, and advice given while presuming your greater authority on a subject will likely be unwelcome. Unwelcome authority generates one of only a handful of reactions: reluctant acceptance, ignoring the unwelcome authority, resistance, submission, or walking away from the situation or person. Ergo, people frequently following your advice is an indicator of an imbalance of power in your relationships.

Secondly, advice-giving commonly contributes to a lowering of the self-confidence of the other when making decisions. Giving people ready-made answers demonstrates your lack of trust in the person to come to a satisfactory conclusion without your help. You bolster your own position as an owner of knowledge and diminish that of the other. This can reinforce belief that they need somebody else's opinion in order to move forward in safety.

Next up, giving advice diminishes the responsibility of the other. Even if they want you to decide on their behalf, they are effectively letting you take responsibility for their reasoning and their outcomes. And just one of the awful consequences of this is that if your advice doesn't work out, it's not their fault, it's yours!

What else? What works for you is simply not the same for everybody else. Each person's stakes are so complex that you can't possibly know or understand them and what worked for you is highly improbable to function in the same way for others. Parenthetically, the advice you give may just be the exact thing that you need to be doing yourself and is going to be far better adapted to your needs than anybody else's! Another thought here is that the things you do habitually for yourself may in fact be outdated - you have grown up, your context has changed. Perhaps what once was an amazing life hack for you, now no longer serves the purpose it was invented for.

Ok, the list goes on, but I'm not going to. While there may be ideas here that you have not given much thought to, I suspect that there's nothing that challenges your logic too much, and if you've read this far, then I guess at least some of it rings true.

In coaching, we observe that when people come up with their own solutions, these have much more impact and the solution finder is much more likely to follow through with them than external solutions. Coaches who work in personal development or other people with a mandate to use coaching skills, act to support the other in their thinking, without judgement, trusting that their process for getting there will be perfectly adapted to their needs, empowering the person and that whether they are wrong or right, this leads to the learning that the other needs the most.

Obstacles to changing our behaviour

So, maybe it's time to hang up our well-worn and comfortable advice-giving boots. But it's not necessarily easy. Each of us has within a mischievous and cantankerous old lady who has a history of saying inappropriate things at family gatherings and sees no reason to change. When we know that sensitive people are going to be present we try and rein her in, giving her strict guidelines of things not to say which she systematically sabotages because life is too short for fools. And while you are trying to achieve something important by not giving advice she will be right next to you, frowning, pouting, Tourettically calling out opinions, sarcastic taunts, and passive-aggressive bitterness to water down your great work. She may not be the exact description of how you function, but we all have parts of our personality that sabotage our good work, through judging others or impatience... and you're going to have to learn to recognise that part of you and be aware of it dragging you back to old habits, finding ingenious ways around the great progress you make. Give that old lady a kiss, a cup of tea and ask about that American she danced with during the war, all she wants is to protect you. She loves you so much and you can love her back without letting her take over.

10 Best Practices I Find Useful

What has been useful for me both as a coach and in my everyday life has been to actively think about how to get positive outcomes for myself and others in a different way than giving advice. Here are some ideas I try to use, listed in no particular order:

  1. Choosing a time when the person is emotionally available for your help and support to be of use.

  2. Asking what people need.

  3. Listening. Even when the other has finished speaking, try just waiting a while and see what else they say.

  4. Giving information, not instruction. Even if people ask for advice - information is better. You could tell an anecdote if it's appropriate, but keep it short, short short. If this is the kind of situation you might otherwise be giving advice then remember that right now it's not about you.

  5. Keeping your listening skills switched on, even when you are talking, even when called on as an expert. Observe how the person is listening to you. What is their body language telling you? Are they open, or are they closed? If they are closed then you are almost certainly crossing their boundaries - it doesn't matter how right you are - they are not available for what you are saying.

  6. Thinking about how to generate collaboration. By putting your judgement of the other, both positive and negative, on standby, it is possible to create space for them to contribute openly and without risk of reprisal should you not agree with what they say (again watch out for your old lady saboteur - no sighs, or tutting, no rolling of the eyes, nor any other absent-minded gestures of silent judgement). Create this space and watch the self-confidence of the other grow before your eyes as they find new creative solutions you never would have considered.

  7. Should the idea of avoiding giving instructions fall to pieces, then give instructions as a series of options from which the other can choose, or that they can use as inspiration for their own ideas.

  8. Checking in on the other. Are they finding useful the support that you are giving? Would they like you to continue? What would they like to know more about? What would they like to happen next in this conversation?

  9. Checking in on yourself. How are your support skills measuring up to what you know about supporting others? What is working well in this situation? What is not working so well? What could you do right now that would make it work even the tiniest bit better?

  10. Telling young children what to do is part of being a parent - kids famously make awful choices and our survival and growth as a species depend on adults just getting on with stuff despite children's passionate protestations. Kids nonetheless can have amazing and insightful input into all kinds of situations and non-advice-giving skills come in very useful for bringing out that creative wisdom. There are so many different ways to parent and different values, and you must do what you think is best with your unique understanding of context and stakes, but there seems to be a strong argument for starting to get kids accustomed to skills that bring outcomes people want, while they are young.

A question that I carry around with me at the moment

I'm often employed by companies as a consultant. I get this work because I'm a coach, but I'm absolutely and contractually obliged to make suggestions in ways that often go against my most coachly of values. How can I use my own best practices to support other people (even high paying clients wanting me to write down my judgements and instructions) in creating their own solutions while still fulfilling my role as a consultant? I've got ideas and ways of fulfilling this role that I practice with apparent success, but the question is never completely answered. I carry it around with me and update the answer regularly.

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