Giving Good Advice

This week's post is a follow up to last week's post on Seeking Good Advice. It's written by Sooth Lab Member, Daniel Sude. Daniel is a Ph.D. Student in Communication at Ohio State University and holds two Master's Degrees: an M.A. in Psychology from the Culture & Self Lab at the University of British Columbia and an M.A. in the Social Sciences from the Rios Conformity, Attitudes, Threat, and Self Lab at the University of Chicago.

In giving advice, our intentions are typically good, but there are some common traps that run us off track. While most of us usually feel like we have good advice to give, we sometimes struggle with etiquette… This might turn into a realization that we don’t quite understand the situation, let alone our ability to imagine how on earth someone got themselves into that situation!

Sometimes, we only realize this after we offer up the advice and the other person bites our head off! How rude, right? But then we think a little deeper about it, and we realize that we were making assumptions that weren't relevant to the situation. Sometimes we realize this; sometimes we just get irritated and feel like we’ll never be capable of giving good advice. You can. You don’t have to understand someone’s situation perfectly to give good advice.

Perhaps you were:

  • A parent trying to help your child choose a major.
  • A single person trying to give a married couple advice on how to communicate.
  • A healthy person trying to help an ill person cope with their disease.

In all of these situations (each of which have appeared in the Soothstream) you lack key knowledge:

  • You don’t know what the job market will be like for each major. You may not know what skills are required to be successful in each major.
  • You don’t know how well or how poorly the couple communicates, you aren’t there during their fights, you aren’t there when the fights are resolved.
  • You don’t know what it’s like to cope with that disease, what energy it takes, and what solutions will prove effective in the long term.

A number of psychological biases can lead you to, in the moment, underestimate this lack of knowledge :

1. Confirmation bias. We tend to look for information that confirms our preexisting beliefs. In the first situation – you may have a sense that some majors are more practical than others. You may give advice based on these beliefs – without looking into the question more deeply. It could be that a major that sounds impractical offers transferable skills that are highly valued by employers. It could be that your child will excel in this major, more so than if they chose an alternative.

2. Illusion of explanatory depth. We often think we know something better than we actually do. This overestimation arises because we are thinking abstractly – (and for a six study exploration of this relationship see Missing the Trees for the Forest). When we are thinking abstractly, it never occurs to us to look more deeply at our own knowledge. Let’s look at trying to help a married couple communicate through the lens of the illusion of explanatory depth. What does communication mean? Mere talking? Expressing our emotions? Venting our emotion?     

Most people advising “communication” intend something more specific. They may want the couple to talk about how they are feeling and how those feelings are influencing their perspectives. They may want the couple to give each other a nonjudgmental conversational space and to explore their problems cooperatively. In clarifying these intentions, the advice giver provides actual, not illusory, explanatory depth.

3. Passive dehumanization. Social psychologists did not intend pretention in the name – rather they were contrasting active dehumanization, where you treat another person as if they were less than human, with a more common ailment. In passive dehumanization we underestimate the intensity of another person’s experience precisely because it is another person’s experience. We can imagine their pain or their joy but that imagination is an extra effort. At a gut, automatic level, we are going to be more aware of our own experience than we are of another’s.

Let’s consider being a healthy person trying to help someone who is ill. Let’s imagine that the person’s illness is depression. We want to help, so we advise them to focus on the good things in life and pay less attention to the bad. After all, depression biases beliefs and reasoning. We may advise them to get moving. Exercise is good for depression. But if they don’t take our advice, we may get frustrated. We get frustrated because we underestimated the experience of depression. We underestimated depression because we have never experienced it ourselves. We may try to relate it to experiences we have had – grief and loss – for example. But we passively dehumanize when we get so caught up in our own experience that we neglect to learn about the other person’s.

So what are the solutions to overcome these biases and give good — relevant, assumption-free advice?

Offer personal best practices, provide multiple solutions, and learn from each other.

1. Personal Best Practices. You have learned a lot over the years. You have learned how to make decisions, to manage your emotions, and to overcome obstacles. We each have developed individual best practices that are worth sharing with others.

For example, I have grown as a person by noticing that emotions carry with them a set of specific, relevant concerns. I have learned to address these concerns directly, treating emotions as counselors with important but limited expertise, rather than letting them run wild like competing generals fighting for control. When I recommend this practice to others, I know that I am not walking in their shoes. I can only suggest that they integrate it into their lives, I can’t tell them exactly how to do so, from moment to moment, situation to situation.

What happens when I meet a student who has anxiety about choosing a major? Experiences of anxiety are intimately connected with concerns about uncertainty and control. Addressing both, I might tell my own story, describe my choice of major and where that choice lead. In doing so I would emphasize transferable skills. Even if your major is not directly relevant to a career, it can help you adapt to new contexts – a comforting thought for a student who fears making the wrong choice. I might even recommend looking at job market statistics, helping the student to gage risk more concretely. All of these recommendations address anxiety in concrete ways. Not one of them, of course, is a perfect solution (the Asker soon learns that other people cannot solve their problem, only help them solve it for themselves).  

2. Provide Multiple Solutions. Sometimes multiple solutions are relevant. When encouraging a couple to communicate better – I may have no idea why they are failing to communicate in the first place. But, I can still recommend taking time in the middle of their arguments to describe their feelings and needs in the moment. I know that, sometimes, acknowledging impulses can keep your partner from getting confused when you suddenly act on them.

I can also recommend giving your partner space to puzzle through things and supporting their process without judging it. Too often we are so frustrated by bad outcomes that we just want our partners to fix things – rather than helping them to do so. Of course, other concerns may be at play. It could be part of a person’s experience of gender to want to stand up for themselves and express their emotions freely, even if that expression is unfiltered. Gender roles can also lead to a desire to be better than your spouse in a certain domain –housework, childrearing, sports, or employment, for example. When a couple is having trouble communicating – I don’t know what issues are at play – I can only make recommendations, at least one of which will help.

3. Learn from Each Other. When we give advice anonymously, we present our personal best practices and brainstorm a variety of solutions to someone’s problem. They can then take it from there. When dealing with friends and family, and even when first reading someone Asking for advice on Sooth, we have the opportunity to get a more detailed picture of someone’s problem.

How do we have clarity about what’s going on in someone else’s life? First, we can distinguish problems that sound familiar from those outside of our experience.

Let’s take the depression example. Friends of mine (including an ex) have suffered from depression. How can I relate? I have occasionally experienced a sense of hopelessness. I have occasionally experienced extreme fatigue. But while I can take my own experience as raw material and try to build a bridge to the other person, I know that depression is different.

Their fatigue is more overwhelming. Their hopelessness is more frequent and more lasting. For them, even clearly beneficial solutions may be accompanied by a feeling of futility, undermining even the motivation to get help. I can try to provide helpful advice, but I can never assume that I know what will work for that person, in that moment.

Certainly, I don’t want to provoke a sense of resentment. I do not understand what they are going through. However, even without this understanding, I can still help. I can make salient possibly helpful behaviors – like exercise, therapy, or medicine. I can call them out when they are being self-destructive, indulging in self-hatred, for example. I do so without judgment. Who wants to criticize them for being too self-critical? I can offer support and sympathy when they try, and fail, to get better. I can celebrate with them when they have that hard won good day, good week, or good year.  
We all struggle to give good advice. We all struggle to understand. We all struggle to be useful. It’s ok. Your personal best practices, your ability to generate multiple possible solutions, and your willingness to learn from others are the best you can do; the best we can do. The best.