Giving Advice Rarely Works. But This Does.

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Giving People Advice Rarely Works. This Does.

Go against your instincts to influence others

By Thomas G. Plante Ph.D., ABPP for Psychology Today

People love to tell you how to live your life, don’t they? There is no shortage of family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, businesses, and of course, magazines and websites offering plenty of guidance about what you should or shouldn't do. Others want to tell you what or how you should (or shouldn’t) eat, drink, shop, vote, believe in (or not believe in), dress, exercise—you name it. But while everyone thinks that telling others what they should do will work, very few actually rely on the proven, research-based strategies that actually do typically result in behavior change.

Think about it for a moment: Has there ever been a conversation between a Democrat and a Republican, between a believer and a non-believer, between a meat-eater and a vegetarian, between a Fox News viewer and a MSNBC viewer, or between a Yankee fan and a Red Sox fan that ended with one saying, “You know what? You’re right! I’ll change right away!”

And honestly, while people encourage you to change your ways to accommodate their suggestions what are you privately thinking? Probably something like “Mind your own business!” or "Why don’t you leave me alone?” You might politely listen but privately most of us resent being told what to do and how to do it.

In a nutshell: Advice giving usually doesn't work, and often completely backfires.

For example, it often makes me laugh when someone knocks on my door to engage in religious proselytizing. I happen to be an engaged Catholic, and my wife is an engaged Jew. Our respective families have been very active participants in our respective religious traditions for centuries. We are happy and comfortable with them, and we learn a lot from each other. And yet, some random stranger knocking on the door thinks that they can change all of that with a brief conversation? Really?

At a recent dinner party, the host (a dear and gracious friend) decided to lecture her guests on a new diet that she was enthusiastic about, which challenges almost everything you likely believe and understand about healthy eating. It also challenges state-of-the-art nutrition science. But she insisted that we all read some popular press book about this diet and then change our lives accordingly. Yeah, right. Of course, no one did as she demanded; all she accomplished was alienating a number of her friends. Probably not what she had planned.

Why Advice Fails

To be fair, we all find ways to tell others how to live. We can’t help it. We all have strong points of view and believe that others should do or think as we do. And most of us are all too comfortable expressing those views to others, whether they're interested or not.

Yet, research using reactance theory informs us that whenever someone tells us what to do and how to do it, we respond with a defensive defiance because we want to maximize our personal freedom and decision making.

So we know that telling others what they should do, even if it is reasonable advice, rarely (if ever) works, though you’d never know this by the endless roster of self-help books and advice gurus out there.

What Does Work?

If we really want to encourage behavior (or belief) change in others we actually need to move away from advice giving (especially when our advice is unsolicited) and toward modeling. In other words, we need to be an example for others rather than telling them what to do.

Research on observational learning (in conjunction with an understanding of reactance theory) suggests that while people will resist unsolicited advice and instruction, they will follow the behaviors of others—especially when there appear to be good and reinforcing outcomes from these behaviors (or beliefs).

Here's a good recent example: One of the most delightful families I met at my son's high school are evangelical Christians. But I had no clue what their religious affiliation was for about 3 years, after spending lots of time with them at track meets and other events. They modeled friendliness, graciousness, and caring better than anyone else I knew at this large public high school. Only during a casual conversation at one of our children's last track meets did I even have any idea of their beliefs and traditions. They modeled wonderful and appealing behaviors without a word and set an excellent example for others—very different than the folks knocking on the door telling you what you should do and believe. 

If you really want to encourage behavior change in those around you, model the behavior that you want and keep your advice-giving instincts in check. I know—I'm giving advice here, and perhaps contradicting myself, but still, just consider this strategy and see how it works out for you.

When complaining isn't cathartic, when it's chronic

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When Complaining Isn’t Cathartic, when it’s chronic

by Meredith Fineman for the Harvard Business Review

We’re all just so “busy” these days. “Slammed” in fact. “Buried.” Desperately “trying to keep our heads above water.” While these common responses to “How are you?” seem like they’re lifted from the Worst Case Scenario Handbook, there seems to be a constant exchange, even a a one-upping, of just how much we have on our plates when we communicate about our work.

My favorite “busy” humble-brag was that of a potential client who apologized for lack of communication due to a “week-long fire drill.” What does that even mean? Does this mean there were fake fires, but not real ones, all week? Does calling it a “drill” mean that everything is okay? Is your business in flames? Should I call someone?

Then there was the date I had with a fellow who was so busy “crashing on deadlines” that he asked me to “just make a reservation somewhere” for him. I was floored.

So much of this is about out-doing each other. To say that “I’m busier than you are” means I’m more important, or that my time is more valuable, or that I am “winning” at some never-finished rat race to Inbox Zero. (Inbox Zero is another absurd contest to tackle at another time.) What you’re trying to say with these responses is: I’m busier, more in-demand, more successful.

Here’s the thing: it’s harming how we communicate, connect, and interact. Everyone is busy, in different sorts of ways. Maybe you have lots of clients, or are starting a new business, or are taking care of a newborn. The point is this: with limited time and unlimited demands on that time, it’s easy to fill your plate with activities constantly. But this doesn’t mean that you should.

To assume that being “busy” (at this point it has totally lost its meaning) is cool, or brag-worthy, or tweetable, is ridiculous. By lobbing these brags, endlessly puffing our shoulders about how “up to my neck” we are, we’re missing out on important connections with family and friends, as well as personal time. In addition to having entire conversations about how busy we are, we fail to share feelings with friends and family, ask about important matters, and realize that the “busy” is something that can be put on hold for a little while.

I am not trying to belittle anyone’s work-load in the slightest. But in using it as a one-upping mechanism, we’re failing to connect in a very substantial way. And we’re making the problem worse: When everyone around us is “slammed,” it’s easy to feel guilty if we’re not slaving away on a never-ending treadmill of toil. By trying to compete about it, we’re only adding to that pool of water everyone seems to be constantly “treading” in. And all this complaining is having serious effects on our mental health.

And yet we continue to use long hours as a sort of macho badge of honor.

We need to work smart, not (just) hard.

Just because you clocked 15 hours at your office, with likely dry eyeballs and a complete lack of focus, doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished things in a smart way. Many people have written or spoken about this. Typically, you have 90-120 minutes before you devolve into internet fodder or social media. If you’re putting in 15 straight hours at your desk, without breaks, how good is your output? How much time are you wasting?

The distinction between working hard versus smart has hit me as an entrepreneur. In high school and college I was always that girl who read all the assigned reading (and no, I was not giving you my study guide). I created outlines, outlines of outlines, and then flashcards. One of my greatest lessons as a businessperson has been to throw out that skill set. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be diligent or that you should half-heartedly execute, but rather, that it’s crucial to know what you have to do as opposed to everything you could do. It’s about being strategic.

For once, I’d like to hear someone brag about their excellent time management skills, rather than complain about how much they can’t get done. Maybe we could learn something from each other.

In fact, I’ll start — here are three tactics I’ve been using to work smarter:

Constrain the time. The more I constrain my time, the more focused and productive I feel, and the less I waste time on low-priority work. If you can only afford to spend 45 minutes on a certain project, then only spend 45 minutes on it — and move on, even if it isn’t perfect.

Use a scheduler. If you’re really up to your neck, it’s very easy to find a scheduler, virtual or otherwise, to help put things on your calendar. Sometimes it’s a matter of freeing up that time used for coordinating plans to actually doing them. Zirtual is a great answer to this. As is the DIY scheduler Doodle.

Cut the fat. Once I cut out superfluous meetings that were not: fun, productive, leading to new business, or really had something wonderful in it for me professional or otherwise, that plate emptied a little bit. (Here’s a tool for figuring out what to cut.)

Yes, we all have some strange need to out-misery each other. Acknowledging that is a first step. But next time you speak to a friend and want to lament about how busy you are, ask yourself why. Try steering the conversation away from a complain-off. With some practice you might find yourself actually feeling less “buried” (or at least feeling less of a need to say it all the time).

And maybe that’s something worth bragging about.

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