On The Right Delivery Of Advice

The best advice in the world will be of meager service if it is not conveyed in a way that enhances the likelihood of its acceptance.  Knowledge is one thing, and communication of that knowledge is another.  What is hard-won on the battlefield of experience may be dissipated in its conveyance to another.  He who wishes to render advice, then, should be aware of the snares and pitfalls that lie in wait for him.

The two things that prevent good advice from being received and accepted are, firstly, the passions of man, and secondly, man’s sense of self-preservation.  When we speak of the passions of man, we mean that emotions and mental distresses block the reception of knowledge.  He who is in a state of agitation will be unlikely to weigh and reflect on things.  Anger, lust, shame, pity, humiliation:  these are the inhibitors of knowledge, the trees and branches that clog the swiftly-moving stream after a storm.  And so he who wishes to render advice must wait for the passions of the moment to subside.  Those with irascible temperaments are not always agitated; in these cases, one should wait until the level of volatility is low.

The second obstruction to advice listed above—man’s sense of self-preservation—manifests itself in pride.  Pride is the self-preservation instinct turned inward, often in a self-defeating way; for it fixes the mind in the past, and finds it hard to accept new ways of looking at the world.  I have found women to be less susceptible to this weakness than men.  In general, women seem to be more able to separate pride from solving problems and getting on with life, whereas a man, especially an older man, may find it difficult to extricate his sense of pride from taking the required remedial action.  I also find that the youthful mind is more receptive to guidance than the old.  Youth remains mostly a blank slate, an unformed potential that awaits proper instruction.  This is why, I think, this advice was so well-said to the young Pip in Dickens’s Great Expectations:

If you can’t get to be uncommon by going straight, you won’t get there by becoming crooked.

In this case the speaker was trying to tell Pip that the only true road is the road of honesty and forthrightness:  which is essentially the same message, among many others, given by Cicero in On Duties and On Moral Ends.  And yet there is this other danger in pride, too; it promotes a certain blind resistance to learning new things.  Along with this—or perhaps because of it—it seeks to transfer blame for one’s predicament to another.  We can be sure that this was what the Greek physician Hippocrates was thinking of, when he provided the following canny advice in his Decorum:

Keep a watch also on the faults of the patients, which often make them lie about the taking of things prescribed.  For through not taking disagreeable drinks [i.e., medicines] purgative or other, they sometimes die.  What they have done never results in a confession, but the blame is thrown upon the physician.  [XIV]

What he means by this is that the wayward patient will never himself shoulder the blame for failing to follow his doctor’s advice.  He never does this; instead he will find it advantageous to blame his doctor.  The blaming begins, almost as a reflex, as soon as fortune sours.  I myself have experienced this same dynamic in the practice of law for many years.  It is the consequence of pride, along with its sister, stubbornness; the patient, or client, is unwilling to permit knowledge, in the form of advice, to penetrate his all-embracing coating of armor.  In such cases, the result is predictable.  The most frustrating experience for a physician or an attorney is to provide guidance, and then see the person who was given the guidance run off and do something else.  It is like seeing a driver speeding towards a cliff, while being powerless to stop him.  But such things must run their course; there is only so much that reason can accomplish.  As Cicero says in his Tusculan Disputations (IV.25), where he quotes Afranius:

However something may hurt, let it hurt no matter what.

Dum modo doleat aliquid, doleat quidlubet:  they will learn their lesson, one way or another!  Pain is sometimes the best teacher.  Proclus tells us that Ptolemy I Soter, the king of Egypt, was complaining to Euclid about the time commitment that was required to learn geometry.  That great geometrician was unperturbed.  He looked the king in the eye and told him:

There is no royal road to geometry.

Francesco Barozzi’s 1560 Latin translation of this famous response was, non est regia, inquit Euclides, ad geometriam via.  Some things have to be learned the hard way, and not even kings can circumvent the path of labor.  Because of these obstructions to advice’s reception, we must find ways of penetrating the defensive armors.  The first way is to couch the advice in amusing pleasantries, so that it may be swallowed with less bitterness.  In this regard, it is indispensable to have a supply of anecdotes, stories, and jokes at one’s hand.  Some men are very good at telling jokes; but I never much excelled at it.  Yet I do retain anecdotes, stories, and quotations, and these are enough.

The second way is to lead the person to the correct conclusion through the efficient use of questioning.  It is like the movement of a liquid through a funnel, where you, the questioner, is acting as the funnel.  I have used this technique for many years with success.  One begins with the “control” question, which may be something as simple as this:  What is your goal, sir?  If you posit this matter this way, it forces the person to clarify his thoughts.  It makes him focus his intentions.  This is especially important when people are agitated or distressed; their first priority is to unburden themselves of their troubles, and this can result in a long, rambling outpouring of irrelevancies.

A third method is to deliver the advice in such a way as to make it clear that the advice is coming from some higher authority or reputable source.  Of course it goes without saying that you must be truthful in using this method; and one must have done one’s homework to have the knowledge ready at hand.  Some men love to fetishize “sources.”  You would make use of constructions like they say, or it is said that, or I once knew someone who said, and the like.  This method also can be effective in dealing with sensitive matters, where one wishes to distance himself somewhat from the subject being discussed.

Bad news is better swallowed when accompanied by something sweet with which to wash it down.  A fourth technique for the delivery of advice is to make use of benign repetition.  One can first deliver the advice by email or phone message, and then follow up this message with a voice-to-voice conversation.  The multiple receipt of the same information solidifies the message in the recipient’s consciousness.  And if the advice is expected to be unwelcome, multiplicity of delivery may prevent later protestations that the recipient “never got the information,” which is a frequent game played by the unwilling in these situations.

A fifth and final method of penetrating the armors of pride and passion is the method of the sudden shock:  that is, figuratively hitting the person with some surprise that puts him on his back.  Those who adopt a defensive posture may stew behind their walls; but a well-aimed missile can bring the whole structure crashing down.  A bold, direct question or comment can cut through many layers of psychological impedimenta, and find ready reception in an exhausted mind.  If the other man is making use of some protective totem, in the form of some comforting delusion, then puncture that delusion.  If the person to whom you want to advise insists on rambling on and on, cut him off with a pointed question or comment like, Why are you wasting your time and money on this course of action?  Or, why are you listening to this ?  You may often find, in such cases, that the person has no ready answer; he was, in his heart of hearts, waiting for you to cut away his aggregated delusions for him, because he was unable to do it himself.  These, then, are some ways to deliver advice effectively.



Read more in Digest, the complete essays from 2016 to early 2020: