last updated: 28 April 2019 (approximate reading time: 5 minutes; 1030 words)
The other day I was accused of giving advice. This may seem like a strange thing to bridle against, but there are important issues here—both for the people giving advice and for anyone seeking advice.
Let me explain…
What is Advice?
The dictionary (broadly) defines advice as: guidance or recommendations concerning prudent future action, typically given by someone regarded as knowledgeable or authoritative.
I have added the emboldening to highlight three key aspects which get to the heart of my reticence to give advice.
- The consequence of advice is action. In other words, someone—who is not the one giving advice—will (or at least, may) take action on the basis of advice.
- The action will be taken in the future—there is no way to control when that advice will be deployed.
- The action must be prudent—careful, sensible, reasonable—and that prudence should be judged in terms of action by the person receiving the advice, not what would be right for the person giving the advice.
But also notice those other words: given by someone regarded as knowledgeable or authoritative. In other words, advice is not simply the recommendation as to future action, it needs to be given by someone with the appropriate authority.
Prerequisites to Advice
Before someone can give advice, if that advice is to have any value, then at a minimum the potential adviser needs to understand:
- what the advice seeker wants to know, and
- how (and when) the advice is going to be applied.
In other words, the adviser needs to be an expert in two areas:
- the subject area of the advice, and
- the advisee themselves and their circumstances.
It's not enough for the adviser simply to be an expert in their specialist subject.
For advice to be of any value, then the advice needs to be right for the person receiving the advice. This requires that the adviser has an intimate and detailed knowledge of the advisee and of the consequences of that advice. For there to be this understanding, the adviser must know the advisee, and will likely have some sort of relationship with the advisee (such as a business relationship or a friendship).
For someone to simply hold out their thoughts as advice—and advice for strangers—is to highlight how much the individual does not understand the nature of advice they think they are offering.
For advisers, there are obvious benefits to offering advice:
- money—giving advice pays (directly and indirectly)
If advice is given without the adviser accepting liability for any consequence flowing their advice, then the incentives—money, reputation, ego—will drive the adviser to give advice; any advice. There is no direct incentive to give good advice.
To be clear, a lack of consequence for bad advice does not automatically mean that any advice is poor. However, as a general principle, a lack of consequence is never a foundation for responsible behavior in any context.
As an aside if, in the context of the advice that is being sought/given, there is a recognized professional body regulating such advice, then I would expect the adviser to be a member of such a body. You wouldn't (willingly) take advice from a doctor who wasn't a member of, and regulated by, a professional medical body, so why would you seek any other sort of advice from an unregulated individual?
Membership of a professional body is not a prerequisite to acting as an adviser and membership certainly doesn't, in and of itself, guarantee the quality of advice. However, membership of a regulatory body at least suggests that the adviser is serious about the advice they are giving.
Risk and Responsibility
Beyond what the adviser needs to know and understand in order to give advice, one of the main reasons I get twitchy about the whole notion of advice (and about people who puts themselves forward as being a source of advice) is that the idea of advice so often puts responsibility in the wrong place.
Too often the process of asking for advice is a proxy asking another person to make a decision and taking advice is a abrogation of responsibility.
Worse, the person receiving the advice—having ducked the responsibility to make their own decision—is then relying on advice from someone who:
- does not know their situation, and
- will not suffer any consequence through giving bad advice.
Knowing What to Ask
Advice is often given unintentionally, for instance, advice is often given in response to someone asking a question.
Answering a question may seem a simple, straightforward thing to do. But think about it: If someone is asking a question, then they have a lack of knowledge in a certain area. And by the way, having a lack of knowledge is fine—everyone lacks knowledge in certain areas.
But if someone is asking a question because they don't know something, then how do they know the right question to ask? How do they know that the question they are trying to frame is going to elicit the information they are seeking?
Sure, the question posed may be answered—but if the wrong question was asked, then who's the real fool? Certainly not the person asking the question who knows that they have shortcomings in their knowledge.
If Not Advice, Then What?
So if I'm so against advice, what's the alternative?
In short, information. Information can be empirically measured and tested. Information can be proved to be factually correct. But there are times when facts are not available and here I'm quite happy with people giving opinions, subject to a caveat: Any opinion should be labeled as an opinion.
And as for anyone seeking advice, keep seeking. However, seek out information and opinions and when you have found those, then make up your own mind and come to your own conclusions based on your own needs and your own circumstances.
If you do need to seek advice from another person, then find a professional who can give you the right advice. Most people offering advice—especially advice for free—are charlatans or fools. Avoid these people; instead seek out a professional and pay for their advice. Since you are paying, ensure that the adviser accepts liability for the consequences of that advice.