Article | 7 min read

Stop saying “If I were you…” and other advice on giving advice

By Rachel Henry

Last updated July 13, 2017

About two months ago I was seated in a theater auditorium, a glass of wine in hand, and extremely excited—ready to see one of my favorite writers and humorists give a reading. I’d taken myself on a “me time” date, to see Amy Dickinson, advice columnist and frequent guest on NPR’s news quiz, Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, who was about to give a reading from her latest memoir Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things. (Read it, seriously.)

Aside from admiring Amy’s wit, glamor, and talent, I was most interested in hearing how she got the gig as an advice columnist. Dickinson has been writing “Ask Amy” 365 days a year for about 15 years. Her advice is widespread and runs the gamut from the personal to the professional. It made me wonder—what does it take to be a professional advice giver? And, if you are talented at doling out advice in your personal life, should you do it at your job? How can you do it without getting major backlash?

What type of advice is best?

Dickinson’s trademark motto is, “I make the mistakes so you don’t have to.” It’s fun, catchy, and for her advice-giving context, it works. Her expertise comes from living a full life; she has experienced loss, divorce, infidelity, single-parenthood, aging parents, and much more. Dickinson writes of her career, “I labor—and have, for almost fifteen years—under the sincere desire to coach and encourage people toward some understanding of their problems, mistakes, or foibles.”

Dickinson’s trademark motto is, “I make the mistakes so you don’t have to.” It’s fun, catchy, and for her advice-giving context, it works.

So how does one “coach and encourage” people? Giving advice is a challenge in any setting, but certainly in a daily column with limited word space. According to a post from Psychology Today detailing a 2010 study, there are four different types of advice; they are advice for, advice against, information, and decision support. In the study, college students were given scenarios with which they had to make decisions while getting different types of advice. Overall, the study found that information advice was the most effective across studies. Information advice provides additional knowledge that the advice seeker may not know, that can shed light on other options for the present, and later down the line.

Dickinson does sometimes give advice for, or against, but I think her most successful pieces are when she offers a new piece of information to mull over.

People prefer information advice because it makes them feel they are still independent and are making their own decisions. As an advice giver, when you start a sentence with “If I were you…” the result is often the other person shutting down. I mean, The Entrepreneur article, “How to Give Great Advice” says, “Traditional advice (of the you-should-do-this variety) might persuade someone to agree with you, but it does very little to help them learn and grow.”

As an advice giver, when you start a sentence with “If I were you…” the result is often the other person shutting down. I mean, that person isn’t you, right?

Case in point. One of my first jobs was as an office coordinator at a startup. I didn’t want this to be my career path, but I also didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go. My boss at the time knew this, and during one of our one-on-one meetings, he encouraged me to shadow people in departments I found interesting. Then, I made a list of job duties I felt most drawn towards to see if I could find a pattern. Those notes served as clues towards where I should go in my professional development. I’ll always appreciate his desire to help me uncover—on my own—what I wanted to pursue. I don’t think I would feel the same way about my career if I had simply followed his recommendations based on “what he would do.”

Should you be giving out advice?

Not all advice givers have a national stage like Amy Dickinson, (or Dear Sugars, aka Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond), but most professional roles require at least some amount of advice-giving. (Think regular feedback, reviews, and the daily solicitations of “help me.”) So the question is, do you have what it takes?

Do you bring empathy in difficult situations? This is perhaps the biggest, and hardest to quantify, skill for a professional advice giver. Advice giving is an emotional, intimate thing. I’ve discovered it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about feedback on how your coworker gives a presentation or whether he or she should buy that pair of shoes they liked. It addresses something intangible about how that person conducts themselves and the choices they make. So it must be asked—are you naturally inclined toward empathy? Or do you skew towards judgmental? I know for myself I lean towards the latter, (INTJ over here) so I tend to stray from giving workplace advice. I also have to remind myself it doesn’t mean I’m a “bad” person, it’s just how I’m wired.

Do you have the clout? I came to a major realization when a mutual friend asked me for advice about how to establish her own freelance business. I was almost a year into running my own and while I was flattered (Who? Me? An expert? Stop.) I had to be upfront with her and say I was happy to share my own experiences, but if she wanted some real seasoned advice, I had other people she could contact. While Dickinson’s “expertise” in life is a bit hard to capture in a resume, she has the clout as a seasoned writer and someone who respects the authority and responsibility of her job.

In the article, “The Art of Giving and Receiving Advice,” David A. Garvin and Joshua D. Margolis write, “Saying no is a service too, and you can further help by identifying other sources of expertise. Even if you are well qualified to serve as an adviser, consider recommending some other people to bring in complementary or alternative views. That will give the seeker a more textured understanding of the challenges and choices.”

“Saying no is a service too, and you can further help by identifying other sources of expertise.” – Joshua D. Margolis and David A. Garvin

Do you take the time to understand all sides of a situation?
There are two sides to every story—this is true for real-crime shows, and it’s true for problems in the workplace. If you’ve already accepted a role as an advice giver, the best piece of advice I can give is to do your research. If someone comes to you about whether or not they should strive for that promotion they’ve been thinking about forever, take the time to learn more about their career history. Take them out to coffee; ask them why they believe that they should (or shouldn’t) go for the job upgrade. It’s also not a bad idea to look into what the actual situation is, so you know what your advisee is considering. Don’t worry; it’s not nosey, it’s simply doing your due diligence to make sure any additional info and insights you provide are grounded in something other than a gut feeling. It’s like the old saying,

Do you focus on the big picture?
According to Garvin and Margolis, “Recent social psychology research shows that people in an advisory role focus on overarching purpose (why an action should be performed), whereas recipients of advice—who usually face an impending decision—are more concerned with tactics (how to get things done).” It’s yet another reason my old boss was pretty darn smart—he could have told me how to accomplish something, but I needed to know why I wanted to pursue a particular career path. The “why” is what keeps me pushing forward after the rush of making a decision is gone.

Should you be an advisor to your teammate? Take that mentorship role? Stop giving advice altogether? That’s a piece of advice I can’t give (after all, you’re the expert on yourself), but I can say that any of the good advice I’ve received in my professional (and personal) life has felt selfless on the other end. Being selfless with advice; now that’s good advice.