How to be good at advice
People have different style preferences. So much of what makes advice good is the right style.
So I randomly came up with this system last night (applicable to any advice that is given or received in any kind of relationship, not specifically formal advisor/advisee relationships) to be good at advice
Different levels of advice
- Level 0 — words of encouragement and acknowledgement: You don’t actually give advice.
- Level 1 — anecdotes and sanity checks: You don’t actually give advice and mainly listen. Your advice is implied with your anecdotes and the questions you ask.
- Level 2 — tactical and strategic: You diagnose the immediate situation and give direct advice without value judgments.
- Level 3 — philosophical and principles: You diagnose the false belief underlying the question and guide them to view the situation through a different lens.
- Level 4 — root causes: You help them identify the emotional patterns that lead them to have these problems in the first place with a series of open-ended ‘why’ questions.
Jane is anxious that her date hasn’t texted her after their date
- Level 0: You tell her you understand how these things can be stressful, that she’s a catch and he’d be lucky to date her.
- Level 1: You tell her you can’t say what she should do, but here’s what happened when you/others were in a similar situation.
- Level 2: You tell her exactly what and when to respond and advise her to go on dates with others as a strategy for anxiety.
- Level 3: You tell her you think she’s getting anxious because she invests too early and that it only works when you fall in love with people, not ideas.
- Level 4: You ask her a series of open-ended questions to help her understand why her self worth is wrapped up in whether a guy texts her or not.
Not that anyone talks this way in real life, but I feel like we could all be better at it if we could be like “What kind of advice are you looking for?” “Ya just L1 and L2 advice, thanks.”
How to not *give* bad advice
Being knowledgeable isn’t enough — so much of what makes advice good or bad is your ability to navigate their communication style and what they’re really asking. We have a tendency to project our preferred style on others but we should be tailoring our communication to the receiver. It’s not easy.
Choosing the right level for the receiver as the advice giver
- Use these simple questions as a starting point: “Do you want advice (L2, L3) or moral support (L0, L1)?” “Do you want to know what I would do (L1, L2, L3)?”
- If they are overwhelmed/emotional, stick to Level 0
- If they didn’t ask for advice but you want to give it anyway, or you don’t know what they need, stick to Level 1
- If it’s the first time you hear of the problem, don’t assume the ‘why,’ start at Level 2
- If it’s a recurring problem, you’ve done Level 2 and understand the why, skip to Level 3
- If it’s a recurring, emotionally-charged problem and nothing else works, they may need Level 4
- Read their personality and their headspace to understand if they prefer advice given from a soft, emotional lens or direct, logical lens. Some advice givers soften the message to avoid being hurtful. If the receiver wants the hard stuff, don’t dance around it, they’ll use all their mental energy exasperatedly parsing out what you mean so they won’t hear you anyway. Others think the best way to show respect is to ‘give it to them straight.’ Tough love won’t stick if they can’t take it, they’ll ignore or warp the message because they’re hurt. Soften it if the receiver is fragile.
- Consider their prior knowledge of the subject. If they’re asking for advice on how to do math, that could mean anything how to do addition and subtraction to advanced calculus. They might not have the vocabulary to tell you what they’re asking for
- Keep in mind the role authority plays. If someone is in a position where they feel like they need your approval, better to err on the side of soft touch.
- Consider how well you know the receiver and if they trust your advice. The less you know them, the less they trust you, the more time you should spend backing up your claims.
- If you were going through life with one blind spot that was ruining your life, that if you just knew your life would turn around, and everyone was too polite to tell you, wouldn’t you be mad? Sometimes the receiver’s character and closely held values are the problems, and the advice giver would do the receiver a great service by addressing them, so do it, but sparingly, delicately, and reaffirm your affections and intentions as you do it.
- Keep in mind if the receiver absorbs written or verbal communications better.
- Be prepared to repeat something 2–3 times in different ways if you really want it to sink in.
- A sprinkle of encouraging words is always welcome no matter what people say they want.
- There are many versions of the truth. When in doubt, err on the side of optimism with your advice.
How to not *get* bad advice
Most advice sucks, but good advice is not just the advice giver’s responsibility.
Here’s what you can do as the receiver to get better advice
- Find a reliable source: Ideally find someone 1–2 steps ahead of you. The issue is still fresh in their mind, and being fresh away from solving the issue, they’ll get the most catharsis from talking through it, and thus be the most likely to be available and thoughtful. Second choice is someone who is at the same stage as you now, third choice is someone who was where you were long ago. When looking for emotional advice, weigh your friendship more heavily than their relevant knowledge, and when looking for impersonal advice, prioritize relevant knowledge. If you can’t figure out who or what to trust, i.e. there’s no consensus answer, you don’t have a good sense of how to tell if someone is truly knowledgeable in a particular industry, etc, ask a few people and put the story together yourself.
- Get them to care about your problem: Ideally you can ask friends, but if not, be prepared to put in the energy building rapport to get real, thoughtful advice. You can also pay or otherwise incentive someone to care, i.e. they perceive you could be valuable in the future and treat advising as relationship building.
- Communicate your needs clearly: Prepare questions in advance, define plainly what level of advice you’re looking for, and have clear objectives in mind. They’ll still have their own style, so make a conscious effort to understand their language and translate.
How to communicate your needs clearly. If you want —
- Level 0 advice: “This is rough and I don’t want advice but I’d appreciate if you could just listen.” Wanting words of encouragement is implied when you say this.
- Level 1: “What happened when x happened to you?” “What usually happens when x happens?,” then follow up questions to go deeper. No need to explicitly ask for advice, just stories. I do this as the receiver when I want the advice giver to enjoy themselves/they are burnt out on being asked for advice, or I don’t think they’ll give it to me straight, or I’m just collecting data.
- Level 2: “I’m looking for specific tactics. Here is the specific problem. Here is my objective.” Lay it out briefly — just the facts. People tend to derail from Level 2 and you gotta keep bringing it back.
- Level 3: Most important thing for someone to share their deep-seated beliefs with you is that they’re comfortable. Again, lay out the problem clearly, outline what tactics and strategies you’ve tried, then share your deep-seated beliefs with them and express vulnerability as you do it (i.e. “My plan was always x but it didn’t work and now I’m scared I’m missing something and don’t know where to look”), then let the conversation flow unstructured. The key difference between how you introduce your problem when you want L2 and L3 advice is: for L2, you leave your emotional interpretation out; for L3, your emotional interpretation is the most important part of your story.
- Level 4: “I’m working through this and I’d appreciate if you could ask me questions that help me look at it from a different angle. I’m not expecting a magical answer, I just really need to think through it with someone — but if you do have any thoughts, I trust you and would love to hear them.” No one can tell you the root cause of your emotional issues, but a good friend can help direct your attention with the right questions.
- Choose wisely. Bad advice < no advice.
- Value the advice giver’s time and effort. Praise them. Make it clear you value and respect them and their ideas. Create a safe space.
- Keep in mind if they communicate better verbally or in writing and adjust accordingly.
- Don’t try to force how you structure your thoughts on how they structure their advice. You’ll inhibit them from communicating their best insights if their attention is on trying to figure out that structure.
- LISTEN. Take notes. If you already asked, feel free to follow up to go deeper, but don’t ask the same damn things over and over. You still have to do the heavy lifting.
- Don’t be an emotional vampire. Nobody wants to feel guilted into listening to endless negativity. Ask for advice with intent. I repeat: you still have to do the heavy lifting.
- Don’t be combative. This is really a note to self. I have had a habit of asking for advice then arguing with the advice. My intent was to tease out their logic with debate, but it would put most people on the defensive. I self-correct now to rephrase combative statements as questions that invite them to elaborate. For instance: “I hear you when you say all houses are brown. Do you think you have seen yellow houses?”/ “What do you think of people who say they’ve seen yellow houses?”/ “I wonder if there are times when not all houses are brown?” / “How did you conclude all houses are brown?”
- Don’t force it. Don’t get attached to any one advisor. You can do what you can to build rapport and draw out the best advice, but sometimes people are too exhausted, too busy, too cagey, or just don’t want to for any number of reasons. Find someone else.
- End of the day, none of this matters if you’re not able to react right in the moment in a conversation— aka have social skills, such as reading people, changing tone and conversation direction quickly, and vibing and getting into a flow with your people. Any communication framework used without social skills will make the user come across robotic. Practice makes perfect!
- When it’s the right advice, it just clicks and you know it. When it’s not, keep trying! It’s not easy to find the right balance of knowledge, connection, empathy, and shared values, especially if you have to find different people for every specific new topic. Keep connecting with people, you’re always learning something.
I feel like a lot of content in this post might seem intuitive on the surface…but if it was, everybody would be good at advice and I wouldn’t have written it. For me at least, having a framework allows me to do a gut check and make my intuition reliable in the moment. I shared this because I hope it might be useful to someone else.
Thanks for the read.