Twenty Ways To Give Advice With Empathy
First, ask permission.
People like to be in control of their lives, and most don’t actually want advice unless they specifically ask for it. A series of studies found that people that give advice to others are more likely to be interested in seeking power and having more control over others. When people don’t want to give up control, advice-giving can become a power struggle. You might hear a response like, “Yeah, that kind of thing doesn’t work for me,” or “Well, the reason that I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing is ….”
This is code for, “You don’t get it.”
Other research has found that receptivity to advice increases when supportive listening occurs prior to delivering the advice. In an ideal conversation, when people tell you their problems, you would first use listening skills before offering advice, like so:
Speaker: So I’m really struggling to lose weight.
You: It’s been tough. (This is a simple reflection).
You: I can tell you’ve been really working on this. (This is an affirmation).
You: Tell me more about that. (This is an open question).
I chose the topic of weight here because it’s a sensitive one where giving advice without active listening could devolve the conversation. The advice-giver could be mistaken for a Know-it-all (a type of Unhelpful Empathy) and the speaker could feel tacitly blamed for their situation. It goes without saying that when people tell you something painful for them, the sensitivity to advice grows.
But if you are in a situation where you really want to give advice or tell someone what to do you can do it in a way where the speaker still feels in control. It’s called asking for permission. This is a core skill in empathic listening which increases the likelihood that the advice will be positively received and even acted on.
If you must give advice when someone tells you about their problems, here are twenty ways to first ask for permission:
- If it’s okay with you, I’d like to share some ideas that I’ve heard about.
- I’m wondering if you’d be interested in hearing my perspective?
- You probably already know everything I’m about to say, but I have a couple of thoughts about this if you want to hear.
- Would it be okay with you if I offer a few ideas that have worked for me?
- I have some advice I’d love to give you about this if you’re interested.
- Would you be open to hearing a couple of ideas that I’ve heard work for people?
- If you ever want to talk about this more, I have some ideas for you.
- If you are interested I’d love to share some things that have worked for me.
- I’m sure you’ve already had people telling you a lot of advice— I have some thoughts too if you want to hear, but I understand if you don’t.
- I’m pretty sure you are the expert on this right now, but I’m curious if you’d be interested in hearing a couple of tips I learned.
- I’ve been thinking about what you’ve been saying and I wonder if you’d like to hear my thoughts.
- Oh, I have a great idea for you! But only if you want to hear it. You are the one that really knows what works.
- Would it be okay if I throw a few ideas out for you to think about?
- How would you like to hear my take on what’s going on for you?
- If you want, I have some advice, but only if you’d like it.
- I have a couple of tips if you want.
- Would it be alright if I tell you about my experience with this? Doesn’t mean it would work for you but could be helpful if you are open to it.
- I have an idea, that you may have already tried, but I’m curious to hear what you think.
- As you’ve been talking I’ve just been thinking of all these things you could do, but I’m not sure if that would be helpful right now. What do you think?
- How would you like another perspective on your situation?
That’s all there is to it. The formula for giving advice so people listen is:
Active Listening + Asking Permission + Advice = Empathic Support
One caveat: tolerance to direct advice-giving without asking permission can vary by person and culture. While research has found that receptivity increases when permission is asked, some people are very interested in direct advice and expect it without delay. For example, one study found that Russians were more likely to view direct advice-giving as helpful and practical in comparison to other Euro-Americans. Another found that Americans were much more receptive to the above formula for advice than those living in mainland China. When the active listening portion of this formula was removed or placed at a different place in the sequence, acting on advice was lower for those residing in the US.
Asking permission may not always be necessary when there is clearly a relationship in which advice is welcome and expected. In the end, it’s up to you to navigate but as a general word of advice (if you’re interested), start by erring on the side of asking permission first.
x Dr. Lord