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Don’t take this the wrong way: Five things you need to know about giving advice

A philosopher and a psychologist on how to know whether you’re being helpful or just interfering

Giving advice is a delicate balancing act. It’s a thin line between sharing useful information and being plain annoying. I should know, having been an unwelcome irritant to family members and friends down the years.

Are there tips for the micromanager in your life? This columnist turned to a psychologist and a philosopher to offer some help on how to advise:

1. Make sure you know what you’re talking about

“Advice-giving should be an altruistic gesture,” says Prof Vlad Glaveanu of Dublin City University’s school of psychology. “To qualify as advice, the information passed on needs to be helpful or, at least, intended as helpful.”

Consider a few criteria, he says. First, is the advice “good” or misguided? Second, does the advice-giver “mean well” or are they just interfering? Third, what is the context of the advice? Giving advice as a parent or a mentor is different to addressing a co-worker — all the more so if you’re addressing them in public.


Misjudging context can result in a classic case of mansplaining.

2. Respect other people’s autonomy

Along with the relationship dynamic, “there is a broader cultural context to take into account”, says Glaveanu. “Like any social human behaviour, advice giving is regulated by norms and values that vary across cultures. In some, it is expected for elders for instance to always advise the young. Giving advice even to young people outside of one’s family can be customary.

“In others, particularly individualistic, western societies, greater value is placed on autonomy and self-sufficiency. Advice in these contexts could be interpreted as unwanted, as intrusive, or as establishing superiority. In these cases, advice is best received when solicited.”

3. Accept that you may lose out

Holding your tongue can be difficult in certain cases. For example, what if the love of your life wants to take a dream job on the other side of the world? Dr Farbod Akhlaghi, a visiting research fellow in philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, is studying this conundrum.

“On the one hand, it seems like we have good reasons to act so as to preserve the features for which we love someone. On the other hand, we also have good reasons to grant people a certain degree of autonomy over their transformative choice-making ... So, what should we do?”

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. However, freezing a relationship in time is a non-runner. As a general principle, Akhlaghi says we must accept certain risks associated with change. There is a risk of either one or both of the parties to a relationship being transformed, there is a risk of the value of that relationship being diminished, and there is a risk of both occurring.

“If we don’t allow for these risks it seems like we cannot realise, or best realise, the value of various interpersonal relationships.”

4. Being brutally honest is sometimes okay

It is often said that real friends tell you what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear. Does the maxim hold up to scrutiny?

Akhlaghi says if you give advicetoo forcefully, or too early in your friend’s deliberative process, then this may prevent them from exercising the degree of causal control over their decision required for them to exercise self-authorship or self-making”. Sometimes, however, it’s okay to be blunt.

“Because of what I call the fragility of interpersonal value, I think that one way to be a good friend to someone is to allow for the risk of upsetting yourself or your friend in the pursuit of a good friendship.

“I think that, sometimes, to be a good friend will require you to try to say uncomfortable things to your friends – that is, to take the risk of upsetting them or yourself. It is just that, when the ‘uncomfortable things’ concern transformative choices in particular, I think you should also take care not to undermine their making that transformative choice with a degree of autonomy that I think is independently morally important.”

5. Consider the fact that you may also need help

If you’re an incessant micromanager it would be a good idea to ask yourself how do you respond to other people’s advice. Are you grateful or resentful?

“If we want to be sure our advice is well received we need to consider how it makes the person receiving it look, to themselves and to others,” says Glaveanu.

“In the end, when the roles are reversed, we would want the same care and consideration from advice-givers. The help we receive should be solicited or expected and not harm our self-esteem; it should be based on the implicit understanding that we can also help others, in turn, with our advice.”

  • Dr Farbod Akhlaghi is opening Trinity College Dublin’s 2024 philosophy public lecture series on Thursday, February 8th on the topicChanging Partners: Should You Stop Your Beloved from Changing Who They Are?’ For more details on the six-week series see: