How to Give Advice That Has a Real Impact

Several years ago I received advice from well-intentioned colleagues that unbeknownst to them, made me sick to my stomach. At the time, I was trying to build up my career and become known for my research. I was a hard-worker, but timid, and my strategy up until that point was pretty much to put my head down and do good work – a strategy, ultimately, that was only going to get me so far. The advice they gave me was to “become known” and to “put myself out there.”

And the funny thing was, there was nothing at all wrong about the advice. I did need to do what they said. But the problem was that I had no clue how to actually put into play what they were suggesting. The advice was so simple, but the execution felt overwhelming.

It was like Michael Jordan telling you that you just need to make a great one-on-one move, blow by your opponent and dunk the basketball. Or Dr.Oz saying you just need to get to your ideal weight and you’ll feel so much better. Or JK Rowling telling you to just use your imagination, sit down, and write your novel.

Of course you want to be able to wow people, feel better, succeed in all these situations. That’s not the problem. The problem is actually doing it. Identifying whatever personal roadblocks we face and actually finding a way to address them

Fast forward many years and I’m now in the position to give advice to others. And so here are a few tips I use to try to give advice that I wish was given to me a long time ago.

Tip 1: Understand the “real” problem underneath the “surface” problem

We often think we have one problem, but a smart advice-giver can help us dig a bit deeper to understand the problem we really have. Imagine, for example, you’re a career service professional and you notice your client doesn’t have her Linkedin profile completed. You might assume that the “problem” is an incomplete profile – which it obviously is. But that surface-level problem might obscure a more important, deeper problem, which is that your client is terrified of putting herself “out there”…. Or that she’s a perfectionist –and can’t stop tinkering with the details of her profile… Unless you inquire and ask and learn–- you’ll hit your head against the wall pointing out a problem she already knows without giving her any help towards solving it.

Tip 2: Offer a captivating enough motivation to do what it takes to put your advice into action

Imagine another situation: you’re encouraging a shy, timid colleague to speak up at a meeting. Help them discover a source of personal conviction that they can draw upon to do the hard work entailed in actually putting this advice into action – because it’s often really hard work to step outside your comfort zone. For example: maybe they’re passionate about getting promoted… and so participating at meetings can help them achieve this valued goal. Whatever their source of motivation is, it’s critical to find a way to tap it to help them muster the courage and motivation to put your advice to work.

Tip 3: Be as specific as possible

Finally, one of the great dangers of giving advice – such as “participate more at meetings”, or “be more assertive at work” – is that it’s overly general – especially for someone who doesn’t know how to do these things in the first place. That’s why the more concrete you can be — even scripting out literal words, or options for a range of potential phrases a person might use – the easier, again, it is for someone to actually use the advice you’re giving.

In the end, giving meaningful, actionable advice is a skill. It takes insight, strategy, and empathy. And by taking these three tips into account, you’ll be well on your way towards building this skill and making a meaningful difference in other people’s lives.


Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of GLOBAL DEXTERITY (HBR Press, 2013) and REACH: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin, forthcoming – early 2017).

Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.

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