Communication

Identifying Good Advice

Photo by Oleg Laptev under Unsplash license

Good advice can be life-changing.

Putting good advice into action can mean getting the most out of life. It can mean getting better. It can mean cherishing moments otherwise overlooked.

But advice is tricky. Until taking action, there’s no way to know if the advice was good or not. It’s only when reflecting on the outcome that we can understand the impact of the advice.

The outcomes of advice

When receiving advice, we can either act on it or not. That action (or lack thereof) will lead to some positive, negative, or neutral outcome. Understanding the outcome is what we need to be able to assess the quality of the advice — e.g. taking action against advice that led to a positive outcome means that advice was good advice.

But how can we know if advice is good or not before we act?

That’s easy. We can’t. We need an outcome to be able to assess it.

What we can do is filter advice in a way that provides a more likely path to a positive outcome. But, before we start talking about how to filter, let’s look at the two ways in which we can receive advice.

Solicited v unsolicited advice

We all receive advice regularly. That advice can either be solicited — meaning we asked to receive it — or unsolicited.

Neither type of advice is inherently good or bad.

Solicited advice can be powerful and helpful. When asking for advice, we make ourselves vulnerable. While the act of asking won’t automatically make others perfectly honest (especially if the advice contains criticism), it goes a long way in opening up for honesty, and that’s when the most useful conversations can surface.

On the other hand, asking for advice often puts the person being asked in a position in which they feel compelled to answer (to give advice). That person may not be suited to provide a good answer, but may do so anyways, just to appease the request.

A similar dichotomy exists with unsolicited advice. Receiving unprompted critical advice can be jarring. In some cases, the advice can be just plain rude.

But, sometimes unsolicited advice can be an amazing thing. When it’s not just someone being mean, receiving unsolicited advice means that person was thinking about you. It means they care about you enough to share what they are saying, even though it may make them uncomfortable.

Asking or not asking for advice has no implication on the value of that advice. My unsolicited advice to you 😉is to ask when you need it, but be open to receiving it when you don’t think you do.

Filtering good advice

Whether advice is solicited or unsolicited, we want to set ourselves up for success by following the good and ignoring the bad. We can do that by filtering advice using these four factors:

  1. Experience
  2. Relationship
  3. Timing
  4. Gut

Experience

Consider the best advice you’ve given others. Usually it’s through sharing your direct experiences or what has worked for you in the past. Giving advice on something we haven’t experienced can feel a little like answering a question without all the information.

So, when asking for advice, put yourself in that person’s shoes. Do they have the proper experience to be able to provide good advice?

For example, when I’ve struggled with parenting my first child, I’ve been more likely to listen to someone who has four kids all older than mine than I have to listen to someone who just had their first baby. That’s because that first person has been through what I’m going through multiple times.

I should also note that this has nothing to do with the person’s age. Experience and age can go together, but they don’t have to. Earlier this week I just took advice that turned positive from someone 10 years younger than me. It worked out well because they had more experience on the topic than I did.

Relationship

The relationship between the advice giver and receiver can also play a big role in setting the stage for the quality of advice. That relationship can bring bias into the situation that could cloud the quality of the advice.

Back to the kids example, if I ask my boss — who has a couple kids, both older than mine — for advice on parenting, I will likely get an answer that pulls from their experience and can help me. But if I ask that same person about something at work, that answer could be skewed if acting on the advice would affect them in one way or another.

Because of this bias, it’s good to get multiple perspectives from people of different relationships in your life, especially when the matter at hand is serious.

Timing

Just as people tend to react defensively to unexpected criticism, most people don’t have good advice to give right off the cuff. Typically the best advice comes when the giver has had a chance to think through it, again, especially when it’s a more serious or tricky situation. That doesn’t mean off-the-cuff advice is always bad, it just means it’s not always that person’s best, as it’s not all the way thought out yet.

That being said, if that person comes back later to follow up, it means they’ve spent time thinking since the conversation. That is powerful. It means they care enough to see the issue resolved. It means they reflected on their experiences and put you at the center of the problem and solution.

Gut

These factors are all a bit academic, aren’t they? It feels super prescriptive when many times it may just be a feeling that leads us to follow or dismiss advice. And that’s why the final factor is trusting your gut. While multiple opinions from people of different types of experience can lead you to some good options at your disposal, you still have to trust yourself.

And sometimes, to learn, we have to fail. And that’s perfectly okay.

So, listen. Receive unsolicited advice with patience. Ask for advice when you want it. Ask multiple people in different types of relationships with you. And then act. Hopefully you act on the good advice and ignore the bad. But sometimes you’ll do it wrong. And that’s okay. Learn from it, get stronger, then do it again!

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