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How to give advice without being a jerk

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I have a feeling I’m going to be really bad at dying. Here’s my plan: In my old age, about a year before I die, I’ll start joking to my kids about what my last words should be. They’ll get really mad and sad and shift uncomfortably in their chair because, really, who wants to talk about their dad dying?

And then, months later, surrounded by a loving family on my deathbed, I’ll finally say this:

“I’ve loved you all for my entire life. The most important thing I learned is…” DIE

THEY’LL NEVER KNOW!!

Is it wrong to know that I’ll be laughing even while my life slips away from this green earth?

If your face is curled into a massive look of disgust, you might be too sensitive to read this site. Speaking of being sensitive…

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of fun giving advice and sharing what I’ve learned. I used to get frustrated when people didn’t listen. Why didn’t they just follow my advice when I could objectively solve their problems?

It took me a long time to realize that information alone doesn’t persuade. If it did, we’d all be rich, fit, and in perfect relationships. (See one of my favorite examples of how information alone doesn’t help people lose weight.)

The short story is that author Clotaire Rapaille was speaking at a university conference where the other speakers were talking about the importance of obesity education. He looked around the room and said this:

“I think it is fascinating that the other speakers today have suggested that education is the answer to our country’s obesity problem,” I said. I slowly gestured around the room. “If education is the answer, then why hasn’t it helped more of you?”

Who else has tried to give good advice, only to have your friend, mom/dad, or boyfriend/girlfriend ignore it? Even when they genuinely wanted to change?

Hmm. If information is not the answer, how do you give advice?

Check out this 4-minute video where I share:

  • What happened when I tried to give people the “right answer” about their finances (1:22)
  • The factors that influence behavior change besides information (2:01)
  • One simple, easy way to drastically improve your communication (2:40)
  • How to walk the line between honesty and sensitivity (3:14)
  • What people REALLY want when they ask for advice (3:46)

After you watch the video, leave a comment below: Have you ever had a friend or family member who refused to follow advice? Why do you think that is?

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57 Comments

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  1. My brother curses like a sailor. He has a 4 year old boy who’s starting to pick up on it and it bothers him. The first time I talked to him about it, I was calm and winsome, and he softened and considered the possibility that it might be his fault.

    But… Well, it hasn’t changed. I’ve put what seems like appropriate amounts of pressure on him based on the relationship we share, and he hasn’t relented.

    I think it’s important to remember this: while it’s a good thing to come alongside as a friend and give advice to hurting people, whether or not it “takes” is more a function of their actions.

    Also… I just imagined you running “split-test” last words on your kids. This is the mental image I have of you!

  2. Love it Ramit! Very funny and love the content.
    Something I used to be very guilty of was giving information to people who didn’t want it.
    I was the guy who was constantly giving the unsolicited advice (especially at school when I was just learning about this self-development stuff).
    It took me much longer than it should have to learn to only give advice to people who specifically ask me
    Thank God I know better know!

  3. Wow! I wish I had seen this video before I got married (and subsequently divorced 5 years later). I married someone who valued (brutal) honesty. The conversation that stands out for me is when we were talking about illness or cancer (probably triggered by some current event) and I asked, “If I had to have a mastectomy, would you still love me?” His answer: “It would be hard.”
    Of course, I flipped out but then it became my fault for asking the question. Didn’t I want him to be honest? The only answer to that I could see at that time was “No, I don’t want you to be honest.”
    Interestingly, his friend was studying psychology and we started talking about the “right” answer to the question, “Honey, do I look fat in this dress?” As you well know, it’s not a yes or no question. What’s the right answer? Either “You look great in that dress!” or “I really love the way you look in this other dress. It accentuates your [enter attractive feature here].”
    Of course, he couldn’t see that the question wasn’t about looking fat or the dress. It’s “do you love me”. And I guess, honestly, he probably didn’t or, if I’m being charitable, just didn’t know how.
    Great video! I hope tens of thousands of people can either stop being a$$holes or learn how to avoid them!

    • Questions like that, I’ve only seen asked in that way by people who are insecure. “Do I look fat in this?” is better replaced by something to the effect of “Which outfit do you like better?” which will tell you what you wanted to know – which dress to buy, or if my new suit really is as flattering as I thought it was in the store; without the underlying insecurity of a question like “Does this make me look fat?” Try replacing your own language, if you want better results from people you’re asking. Otherwise you’ll probably get the “Honey, you look marvelous!” from every guy who doesn’t want to sleep in the doghouse. Likewise, consider why you’d even ask if someone would still love you if you had a mastectomy.

      That being said, anyone who’d say they wouldn’t love you anymore (or an equivalent) if you had a mastectomy is probably an asshole not worth your time anyway.

  4. I never give advice unless specifically asked, unless you count things like, “Yo, it is possible that three cupcakes and a glass of coffee milk is not a wise bedtime snack for our four-year-old, but hey, you’re the one putting him to bed tonight, so whatever.” I assume that people are already doing what they want to do, so any unsolicited advice from me is more or less the same thing as my saying, “Hey, you should stop doing what you obviously want to do and do something different, that you don’t want to do, and that I you don’t want to do because if it *was* what you wanted to do, you’d be doing it already.” Useless.

    However, when an objectively idiotic course of action ends in a result that the individual in question starts complaining about, I do reserve the right to mock them ruthlessly. “You gave your incredibly unreliable sister $600 for rent and she spent it on a new tattoo and is tapping you for another so-called loan? Wow, it’s almost like she’s not already $5K in the hole to you. Who could have predicted this course of events? If only there had been some way to see this coming.”

    It helps that my friends and family are all hypercompetent wiseasses, though. There is very little need to give any of them advice, and everyone is an equal target for ruthless mockery.

  5. I used to be an attorney (I know! I’m sorry!), and one of the things that always astounded me was people who not only chose to ask me for advice, but actually PAID me to give them advice… and then decided to ignore it because, I think, it wasn’t what they wanted to hear. Now, this gibes perfectly with what you say, because is 99.44% of these cases the person seeking advice was not someone I knew well, but in a way it still blows my mind.

    One beneficial side-effect of this phenomenon, however, was that I have become more conscious of when I am tempted to do the exact same thing myself. “I have come to this expert and posed this question specifically because I want the benefit of his/her expertise. He/She has now shared that expertise with me. Why on earth would I disregard it just because I was hoping for a different answer?”

    • That’s “IN” 99.44% of these cases, not “IS” 99.44% of these cases. Dammit, Ramit, why can’t I edit? (See how I just blamed you for my own failure to proofread carefully?)

    • Well, to be fair Bret, I was going through a divorce and my wife and her family were un-fricking real with the games they were playing.

      After a couple of years of them playing games and holding things up, it came down to the wire to make a final deal and they started trying to use use-car negotiating tactics on me. Multiple times in prior months my lawyer told me I should take shit-deals to avoid going to court because “I could end up worse off” in the 50/50 state of CT. So I’m in my lawyers office and he tells me that they want they are want another $10000 out of me at the 11th hour. My lawyer said it was a good deal. Because it would be bad if we went to court. I told my lawyer to tell them to shove it and I would see them in court and let the judge decide. They got angry but backed off.

      Sometimes the lawyer does not always know the situation the way the client does. And sometimes laywers are spineless wusses that just want to settle regardless of how their clients ends up. In the end, he’s a lawyer I would never recommend to any of my friends, other than perhaps a house closing or something minor. Divorce? I will tell my friends to find a lawyer that is a bit more willing to fight for what is right for their clients.

    • What career do you have now since leaving law? I know lawyers who want to leave the practice of law and dont’t know what to do?

  6. Love it.

    One thing though: When you say that only assholes talk like that, you’re forgetting that lots of people just don’t know any better. They honestly think brutal honesty is (or might be) best – and they’re being perceived as assholes to be sure, while their intentions are fine. In the end though, how we’re perceived matters more. 1000 good intentions amount to nothing if we’re perceived in a negative way.

  7. I think our risk aversion is one thing that often keeps us from acting on information. We often fear failure more than we desire success which keeps us from using the information we already have that could move us towards success. In my experience, most of the time when someone seeks explicit advice or steers the conversation in a direction that prompts it, they aren’t seeking new info. You can tell because they keep saying things like: “I know”, “you’re always right about this”, “I’ve been trying to but..”. The key to advice isn’t to tell them what they already know they need to do, but to stoke the fires of desire for success and to quash ‘reasons’ for risk aversion. People often don’t need advice, they need a grown up pep talk.

    • Or the other way it is risk aversion is people don’t want to tell you the truth because it provokes a negative reaction. It is much easier to tell someone what they want to hear. Failing that, it’s easier to be blunt than to give advice in a gentle enough way someone will not get defensive. Even then, they may ignore it or get angry because they don’t want to hear it.

  8. This reminds me of when a friend in high school was talking to me about what she should do because she had cheated on her boyfriend and (for some reason) she felt like I was the best person to tell because I was least judgemental.

    I wanted to say that was really stupid and you clearly need to tell him and break up… But I listened for a while and was a bit softer w/ my advice.

  9. But, being brutally honest is so much more entertaining! Why do you think we listen to you?

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