How NOT to change people: why they never seem to listen to your awesome advice

Here’s a free piece of unsolicited advice: don’t give unsolicited advice.

Wait! Don’t go! I promise that’s the last piece of hypocrisy I’ll be dishing out for at least 3 paragraphs.

In all seriousness though, advice-giving is a tricky, complicated business. And as such, it should be dispensed with the kind of care that might be afforded a pre-menstrual grizzly bear.

Because, like a flatulent old man after a hot curry, advice has a tendency to backfire. And not necessarily because it’s bad. On the contrary, almost equal proportions of good, ghastly and ‘meh’ advice seem to be ignored or even blatantly contravened.

Rather, it’s all about the approach and delivery.

Let’s explore a couple of the fatal errors we often make in our attempts to persuade our loved ones to do things differently.

Fatal error #1: Giving without asking

Many years ago, my sister and I were out at a bowling alley. The objective of the night was fun and frivolity, pure and simple. We were giggling away and having a whale of a time when, out of nowhere, a balding man in pinstripe pants materialised beside us and started giving us pointers.

He was obviously a tenpin pro and his tips would no doubt have been good ones. But becoming a better bowler was not the evening’s aim. So instead of lapping up his lessons, the longer he lingered, the fewer f*#!s we gave about anything he said.

This situation is unfortunately common. Many have had the experience of innocuously going about our business when someone takes it upon themselves to tell us what we’re doing wrong and how to do it better.

Needless to say, we tend not to be overly receptive to recommendations in such circumstances.

But what’s the alternative? When is it actually ok to dish out advice?

Well, like a good sexual experience, it’s all about consent.

Obtaining acquiescence before launching into a tirade of tips does wonders for rendering the recipient of the recommendations more open to hearing them.

“Would you have any interest in what worked well for me when I had this problem?”

“Do you want to know what I’ve often found useful in this situation?”

“I reckon I know something that could help. You might be all over it already, but tell me if you want extra ideas.”

At this juncture, the advice-ee may indeed give us a red light. And that’s ok. Not everyone actually wants advice in every avenue of their life. And by finding out first, we save them frustration, and save ourselves a whole heap of wasted air and effort.

If given the green light however, they are obviously open to ideas.

Though whether they adhere to them or not may be another story…

Fatal error #2: Telling them what they already know

With a few choice exceptions, most of us have a pretty good idea of what’s good for us and what’s not. Anyone who possesses some semblance of insight already knows when they’re being lazy, greedy or just plain stupid.

And any of us who want to change said laziness/greediness/stupidity have probably also already given some thought to how that change could happen.

As a result, pinpointing the problem is rarely the problem. And identifying the solution is rarely the problem.

Rather, the problem is usually a lack of motivation to actually address the problem.

For example. I’m already aware that saying the word ‘problem’ six times in three sentences is a problem. I’m aware that the solution to the problem is to stop writing the word ‘problem’. But I’m still going to keep using it because I can’t be arsed expending the effort required to unearth an appropriate synonym.

In this situation, pointing out to me that over-using the word ‘problem’ is a problem is not going to help me. I already know that I have a ‘problem’ problem.

Telling me to stop using the word ‘problem’ is also not going to help me. I presently have no access to an alternative.

Even offering solutions may not help. You may try to convince me that a writing class will ‘fix’ my depleted lexicon, but I may not have the time, energy, money or motivation to actually attend.

As a result, advising me on any of these points will only serve to make me defensive as I seek to justify my shortcomings in the face of this attack on them.

Furthermore, with the problem and solution already articulated for me, all that’s left for me to add to the conversation is why I can’t change. And in doing so, I inadvertently end up psychologically augmenting the barriers and further persuading myself that change is indeed impossible. The result? A doubling down on the ‘problem’ behaviour.

Obviously, dispensing advice with reckless abandon doesn’t work. But never fear! A powerful alternative exists in the form of extracting advice.

The ‘extraction’ approach is the difference between telling someone they need to abandon their couch-confined sloth-like lifestyle and activating the defensive response (“I’ve tried but I can’t!”) and asking them how they feel their health is going (“Well, truth be told, I’d like to lose a bit of weight”).

It’s the difference between telling them to hit the gym (“But I can’t afford a membership!”) vs. asking them whether they’ve considered how they might kick off their journey to better health (“I was thinking maybe I could start going for a walk at lunchtime each day”).

When we help them to focus on the underlying motivation for change and help them generate the potential solutions, we elicit more ‘change’ talk and less ‘sustain’ talk.

Even if barriers are brought up, the exact same extraction approach can be used.

“Those 600 chocolate bars stashed around your house sound very tempting. Have you given any thought to how you might deal with that?”

In the absence of an intellectual disability, most people in most situations are quite capable of coming up with solutions to their own problems. Most fixes are fairly obvious when the focus is appropriately directed.

And helping to guide that focus where we come in.

So instead of summing up here with further advice on giving advice, instead let me ask you this:

Why might you want to change the way you give advice?

And next time you want to help someone change, how do you think you might go about it?

Musings from a human with eyes and ears. Read more at

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