Give and take can be tough: particularly when the “give and take” refers to advice. If this resonates as much with you as it did with me, it seems we are not alone. A quick internet search reveals that there are oodles of folks with advice regarding taking and giving advice. Most of these nuggets of wisdom center around the concept that advice is often given freely and accepted reluctantly. But why?
For many of us, I think it is hard to give advice because it adds new risk to an existing relationship. What if my advice is wrong and heeded to ill outcome? Will I feel responsible? What if my advice is correct and unheeded? Will I feel angry at not being listened to? Will I be able to move past the fact that my advice wasn’t taken? What if my advice angers the recipient or saddens them in a way that distances them from me? Will the act of giving the advice have been worth the loss in the relationship?
Taking advice is no easier. I have spent many years building a sense of competency: 7 years of graduate school, 3 years of postdoc work, and additional certifications in everything from project management to sailing. From childhood protests that “I can do it by myself” to much more recent dismissals of input as irrelevant, I have reiteratively insulated myself in a cocoon of self-assuredness. With age and perspective, however, I began to sense this cocoon might be false, that it might not be possible for me to see a topic from all sides or anticipate changes or developments that might change my opinion. However, with all this self-awareness it often didn’t make taking advice any easier. In part, I believe this resulted from a perception of “advice obligation”: what if I hear advice I don’t want to take? Will I feel more distant from the advisor (or will they feel more distant from me) if I don’t listen to them at all?
Travelling for 9 months pierced my bubbles of competency and reluctance. “Planning not to plan” by necessity means that you arrive in a new place not knowing much. We would perhaps know how to get to our hotel for the evening, and we likely new details around local political instabilities and health concerns (if any). Often we knew some of the big sights to see, but we likely hadn’t read reviews to see if they were up our alley. And this left us open to asking for and receiving advice from our fellow travelers and locals we met along the way.
And this was the best part of our travel. We felt none of the typical anxiety or angst that we might get bad advice. And while we didn’t feel a particular obligation to take the advice, we also took it to heart largely unaltered in many cases. We would never have visited Antarctica or Nicaragua or Colombia without this encouragement. We would have missed out on fantastic tapas (Quimet Quimet) and amazing museums (İstanbul Arkeoloji Müzeleri) without the advice. For our part, we passed along our advice as well (like how to avoid touts in Jamaa El Fnaa square and how to talk politics with Americans) and to our surprise these nuggets of ours were accepted with relish.
But the real shock on our return is how quickly advice-doubt creeps back into daily life. Giving advice is now tougher. We have a sense that we have developed a new unique perspective, but we find ourselves sometimes reluctant to share it. In part, this is because it feels different to share insight when you know that you aren’t moving on to the next town in 4 days. The feeling perhaps is summed up by the saying that “Friendship will not stand the strain of very much good advice for very long” – Robert Staughton Lynd. It seems, in spite of our travels, our fear of the side effects of offered advice (rejection or emotional-distance) is quite great.
That said, we are still thrilled to receive guidance. Once you have opened the door to taking advice, it wedges its way open somewhat permanently. Perhaps this is due to reinforcement from the good results. However I think it is more likely due to 4 changes in how we seek advice that makes the advice we receive more interpretable and actionable, while ensuring that ill relationship side effects are minimized.
- Be complete: In the wise words of Abu Bakr, “When you seek advice, do not withhold any facts from the person whose advice you seek.” By sharing all the details (including our own risk tolerance, preferences, etc.) we found that we could tap not only the specific expertise and experience of the person giving advice, but also tap into their ability to extrapolate into scenarios different from their own. Also, you provide them with a point of reference for how their scenario may be different than your own.
- Be honest with yourself: Another key that we found is being honest about why we are seeking the advice. Is it novel input or corroboration? If it is simple corroboration you seek, then don’t ask for input. Instead ask questions like: under what conditions are my assumptions likely to be incorrect? Otherwise, you’ll end up with a lot of advice you won’t heed and an opportunity to disappoint your advisor with inaction.
- Be open: In retrospect the best advice we received on the road was advice completely shifted our mind-view. Embracing the unexpected feedback both good and bad, and translating this into seeing the opportunity in the challenge turned out to be the best part of the trip. Finding a way to be open to alternate views will only deepen your resiliency and problem solving.
- Be grateful: Regardless of the advice, value the effort. While in the moment it seems like everyone is happy to give their insight and thoughts freely, in actuality many folks feel burdened (either by expectations or worry) afterwards. Even if we don’t ultimately follow someone’s advice to the “T” we always try to share back with our advisors how things went and how much we valued their sharing their insights regardless.
So, you might ask yourself, what do I recommend that you the reader do with this blog entry’s unsolicited advice about taking advice? Perhaps the words of Oscar Wilde shall inspire you to tweet or facebook it because: “The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself.”