Why Ask Advice

This week's post is written by Sooth Lab member, Janae Koger. Janae is pursuing her Master’s Degree in Cari Goetz’ Evolutionary psychology Lab at California State University, San Bernadino.

When I am at Subway, I often find myself asking my roommates if I should get a 6-inch or a 12-inch sandwich. They always say 12-inch for the following reasons: I eat a lot, I like sandwiches, and they know I will probably order one anyway. So, why do I ask? I know, sandwiches is a silly topic for discussion, but there is some truth in what I have illustrated. People often ask for advice when they have already made up their mind or have a preconceived notion of what they are already going to do. So why ask? Honest answers often include:

  1. We like having our feelings validated.
  2. We want someone to commend us on our awesome choices.
  3. We appreciate the objective standpoint of someone who is not emotionally involved. Well, prepare to have your mind blown: none of these really come to fruition in advice-giving.

Some honest thoughts on the illusion of transparency

The easiest thing I have done as intern for Sooth, an advice giving community, is affirm what I perceive to be other people’s feelings about their current situation. Sometimes the person seeking advice states, “this really pissed me off”. I love those people. It makes saying, “I understand why that pissed you off” way easier. It’s easier because there is no guessing work, I do not need to pretend to know exactly what they are feeling. This is the illusion of transparency, the belief that other people are capable of being, “inside your head” and therefore knowing what you are feeling and experiencing. Personally, I find nothing more infuriating than when I express my vulnerability to someone and they tell me how I feel. “Yeah, you're sad.” “I know I am irritating you.” A word of advice on giving advice, those statements are not super helpful. Let the person tell you how they feel, and if they don’t, ask. It’s difficult to validate someone's feelings when you simply do not know what they are feeling.
Some honest thoughts on the false consensus effect

All too often people seeking advice want to hear their words come out of your mouth. Cue false consensus effect: the tendency to think that most people agree with our thoughts and attitudes, and in this case, decisions. There have been instances where I feel like I am giving a person advice contrary to what they want to hear. It can be difficult. You want to be helpful and supportive, while still giving good advice. Advice can be difficult to hear and it can be extra challenging to hear it from a stranger. That’s one of my favorite things about Sooth. Strangers band together in the most vulnerable, trusting way to try to help and be there for others. I am just a stranger. I am Soother X, I have no face, I have no credibility. People must trust that this app, this anonymous safe space, is trustworthy in order for them to trust me. I know when I give advice that is contrary to what people want to hear, I run the risk of fueling reactance which might even deter people from seeking advice again. So, when I do have to post advice that goes against what someone else wants to hear, I affirm all of their solutions and word my advice in a very active and opinionated way. For example, phrases such as, “I feel as if”, and “Maybe it would be beneficial for you to try” have become frequent in my Sooth vocabulary.

Some honest thoughts on objectivity and empathy

When people post on anonymous online communities in general, they are typically looking for an outside perspective— an objective standpoint to base a very serious decision off of. We as a collective society are not objective. When the teenager posting that she is still in love with her ex-boyfriend who treats her like crap is posting for advice on what to do, I hear my little sister’s voice on the phone, crying, telling me that her douche of a boyfriend cheated on her again, should she give him another chance? I feel myself typing the response to the anonymous in-love teenager, and it usually goes like this, “Drop his sorry ass. You are a queen and should be treated as such. Who does he think he is? Where does he live? I’m driving there right now…” Okay, not helpful, right? But, such is empathy. The ability to be within someone, to experience their pain and to be willing to be vulnerable in their own vulnerability. Brene Brown has a wonderful short video on empathy that I highly recommend.

I have noticed it is hard for me to give advice on situations that hit to close to home. “I don’t think I love my husband anymore.” “I’m depressed and I don’t know what to do.”, “I think my best friend is in an abusive relationship, how can I help?” I stare at my phone and I feel what the other person— maybe a next door neighbor, maybe someone on the other side of the planet— is feeling. Distance is shrunk into the spaces between words and I swear I can reach out and hold their hand. This is empathy and this is the reality of advice giving. Maybe if they can get through it, so can the people I love or maybe so can I? Advice giving has this magic quality. You are vulnerable with the other person in the most human way possible and you are able to find solutions to heal your scars by helping others. You are able to talk to yourself by reading scenarios that hit too close to home. You are able to tell yourself to give yourself a break, to love yourself, to leave the abusive relationship, to forgive your mother, to talk to a therapist, all by typing words of advice on a mobile phone.

Advice is a path to self discovery

Giving advice is difficult, but not impossible. If you’re aware of people’s preconceptions or defenses— their desires to have their feelings validated, choices commended, or receive objectivity, you can give good advice that’s well received and constructive. In both getting and giving advice in an anonymous and safe space, you learn a lot about yourself and a lot about other people’s realities. You learn styles of advice-giving, you begin to have favorites— like how one person puts smiley faces in their comments and another person asks questions as if they are talking directly to the poster. Not too long ago, a friend was standing in the hallway of my apartment holding a pregnancy test in one hand and her stomach in the other. She already has two children, she asks me, ‘What should I do?” That very night on Sooth someone posted a situation: they have children and their husband wants to move his young child into the house. They are struggling to make ends meet and the mother feels like she is already at the end of her rope. “What should I do?” I sit down and start giving advice.