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A woman seen from behind is advising another woman on something. They are standing at the edge of a wide road

Photo by Richard Kalvar/Magnum

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Recognise the point of giving advice and you can do it better

Photo by Richard Kalvar/Magnum

by Joshua Habgood-Coote + BIO

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A philosophical look at advising highlights what makes it a distinct form of interaction – and why it often goes wrong

Advising is hard. People seek out advice because they’re uncertain, but they are often unsatisfied by being told what to do. People like it if a friend offers advice when asked, but not when a friend offers too much advice, or advises too often. Advice can be legitimately annoying, even when the advisor knows what they’re talking about and means well. Advising is a more peculiar practice than it might seem, and it poses distinctive challenges for both advisor and advisee.

One common problem is overbearing advice. An overbearing advisor treats any complaint as an invitation to problem-solve. When actually asked for advice, they are either overly verbose, offering an extensive description of what they know about the topic, or too directive, making immediate pronouncements about what ought to be done. One of the things I’ve learnt through bitter experience is that I have a tendency towards overbearing advice. I’ve often found myself in a situation where someone asks me for help but, the more help I offer, the more annoyed they seem to be. These days, I often bite my tongue when people describe their problems to me or seem to be doing things ‘the wrong way’. When my friends and family need to talk through their problems, I quite often say: ‘I’m not going to give you advice,’ in an attempt to make it true. Quite often people just need to vent and, when they do want advice, the manner of advising matters just as much as the content.

Having learnt not to give unsolicited advice, I’m not aiming here to give you advice about how to advise. Instead, I want to think a bit about what advising is, as a way to help us both understand how to do it better.

Philosophy might not be the most obvious place to look for help with advising. Philosophers’ reputation as know-it-alls is well earned. With that said, actual philosophy practice is an overlooked source for thinking about advising. Notwithstanding the monkish mythology, almost no contemporary philosophical work is the product of one mind. We rely on supervisors, friends, colleagues and audiences to help us think about problems that are almost always too hard for us. We stand in tangled relationships of advising and being advised, and we spend quite a lot of time worrying about how to advise and how to respond to advice.

To think about what makes advising good or bad, let’s consider what the point of advising is. Here, I will borrow from the philosopher David Gauthier. Gauthier, who died in November 2023, spent the majority of his career working on social contract theory and the relation between ethics and rationality. In his less well-known doctoral work, published as Practical Reasoning (1963), he follows R M Hare and Patrick Nowell-Smith in the Oxford tradition of ordinary language ethics. This approach tries to shed light on ethical questions by thinking about the language of ethics.

It’s frustrating when an advisor seems to be more focused on showing how knowledgeable they are

In the course of distinguishing advising from exhortation, commands and the like, Gauthier articulates an important idea about the function of advising. He argues that the point of advising is to assist someone in solving a problem without sharing responsibility. Let’s take each part of this claim in turn.

Very often people face problems that outstretch their practical experience: how to break up with their first serious partner, how to plaster a wall, how to learn Maghrebi Arabic. When people face these problems, they seek out someone with experience they don’t have. Different kinds of practical problems call for different kinds of experience, and different kinds of advising. If someone is completely out of their depth, they’ll likely want another person to tell them what to do. If they are just factually ignorant, they’ll be after someone who can share relevant information. And, if they’re unsure about their ability to weigh the relevant reasons and information, they will want someone to talk through the problem with them without necessarily giving any advice.

If the point of advising is to help someone solve the problem they face, you can see why it’s frustrating when an advisor seems to be more focused on showing how knowledgeable they are, or brings up a different problem that they encountered. Many of us know someone who responds to other people’s problems by talking about a vaguely related problem that they have successfully solved. (You can’t get your cat to stop climbing the curtains? Here’s how I trained my dog…)

We can bring out the other part of Gauthier’s idea – that advising involves helping without sharing responsibility – by considering a (lightly fictionalised) example.

On a whim, my friend Ann has signed up to run a marathon in three months. She asks me (a seasoned marathon runner) for advice about how to train. I work up a basic training plan for her, give her some instructions for fuelling and pace zones, and tell her about the importance of swapping out worn-out shoes. In the weeks after the chat, I repeatedly check in about her training, prodding her to stay on track in order to meet her goal. To my surprise, Ann stops replying to my texts.

Something’s gone wrong here. There seems to have been a clash of expectations: Ann wanted a limited kind of help, but out of well-meaning excitement I’ve taken responsibility for making sure that she follows the plan and finishes injury-free. Gauthier offers us a nice account of what’s gone wrong in this case: I’m treating Ann’s training as a shared concern, whereas she understandably wanted to retain responsibility for deciding how to train. Ann was asking for advice; she wasn’t asking me to be her coach.

This example brings home the difference between advising and shared planning. If you and someone else are genuinely doing something together, you’ll treat a practical question about what you both should do as a shared responsibility, and aim to form a shared plan for which you’re both responsible. In contrast, if you are advising someone, you will both engage with a practical question, but the question is what the advisee should do, and that person retains responsibility for the decision. It would be weird if a friend came to you for advice about how to break up with a partner, and you responded by saying: ‘We’ll break up with them together!’ before picking up their phone to make a dinner reservation for three. Overbearing attempts at advising aren’t usually so intrusive, but they do tend to go awry in a similar way.

To be fair to the advisor in the marathon story (a lightly fictionalised me), giving advice can often feel like facing a shared problem. Why is this? I think the reason is that advising involves a kind of conversational pretence.

No matter what they want from me, it’s important that I remember that I’m only temporarily taking on their problem, only pretending to face it

An advisee is actually trying to resolve a problem, whereas the advisor is only pretending to resolve a problem for which he doesn’t really have responsibility. He’s pretending that the problem is a shared one that they are both dealing with. But when it comes to the moment of decision, the advisee retakes control, making a decision in which the advisor plays no role. Through this practice, which I call collaborative deliberation, people manage to share practical experience without sharing responsibility for what is done.

The problem faced by the overbearing advisor is that it is easy to forget about the pretence. When you engage in collaborative deliberation as an advisor, you might use forms of language that are similar to what you would use to simply tell someone what to do (‘Dump him!’) or to engage in joint planning (‘We need to take into account that he’s cheated in the past’). But as an advisor, you aren’t really supposed to be directing someone or deciding what to do with them. You are engaging in a complex form of make-believe.

Thinking about advising as collaborative deliberation has helped me get a grip on how to avoid overbearing advice. Sometimes my friends come to me for advice because they are out of their depth and want to know what the best course of action is. But quite often they just want information, or to talk through a problem. If there is any question about what their problem is, it’s probably safest to steer clear of simply telling them what to do, or to start by getting clear on what kind of help they need. No matter what they want from me, it’s important that I remember that I’m only temporarily taking on their problem, only pretending to face it. The ultimate responsibility lies with them.

Seeing advising as collaborative deliberation has also helped me see why unsolicited advice is such a pain. Collaborative deliberation involves an expectation that the advisee will disclose their desires and priorities to the advisor, matters that are normally private to them. If an advisor is to pretend that she is facing the advisee’s problem, she needs to be able to see the problem from the advisee’s point of view. There is a distinctive kind of intimacy to advising. If I offer someone unsolicited advice, I presuppose the right to open up intimate parts of their mental life.

How can we (I) do better? Let’s consider another example:

My friend Bernard has signed up to do a marathon in three months (everyone is doing them these days). He asks me for advice about how to train. I start off by asking him what his goals are: whether he’s aiming for a particular time, to finish, or to just have fun. We then talk for a while about other races he’s run, what went well, and the problems he’s had in the past. It turns out that he’s had problems with plantar fasciitis and fuelling, so I let him know about the importance of switching out his shoes and doing training runs with the same nutrition he’ll use on race day. I point out that if his goal is to have fun with the race, he might be better off focusing on long runs rather than rigidly following the training plans he’ll see online. I close up by saying that he can text me if he has any problems in training.

Rather than focusing on a generic type of problem, I start off by filling in the specific situation that Bernard faces, giving him space to articulate – and to understand – his goals and experience. This allows me to tailor the style of my advice to his situation, rather than offering an off-the-rack solution. The questions I ask are not just politeness or stage-setting; they’re an important part of what it takes to advise someone well. The actual advice given isn’t very different from the one in the previous marathon story, but we’ve got there in a rather different way. And in this case, I leave enough space for Bernard to contribute to working out how he should train, and step back to let him carry it out.

Advising is hard. It’s a complex activity that involves negotiating someone’s difficulty in dealing with a problem and their responsibility for dealing with it. Often, it degenerates into telling people what to do or showing off how much we know. Perhaps if more of us understood advising a little better, we could avoid giving overbearing advice and be more responsive to what other people actually need when they ask for help.

The research in this article is based on received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 818633).

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23 January 2024