Asking for advice

I’m lucky enough to have a lot of friends who I think are very smart, thoughtful and have good judgement (of course, I’m biased.) This means that whenever I have a problem or a decision I’m struggling to make, I instinctively want to ask lots of different people I know for advice. I also sometimes find that my friends think I might be able to help them solve their problems, and so they ask me for advice.

I’ve been thinking about what makes advice helpful - both so I can get the most out of advice from others for my own problems, and so I can be as helpful as possible to other people. When asking for advice from others, I think there are three main things I might be looking for:

  1. Factual information/knowledge. Sometimes the reason I’m struggling to make a decision on something is just that I’m missing a key piece of information, and someone I know might just be able to give me that information because they’re more knowledgeable on a topic than I am.

  2. Help structuring the problem.  Sometimes what I need isn’t information, but simply help thinking through the different considerations and information I already have. Other people can help with this because it can be easier to think clearly about a problem that isn’t your own, or because they might have experience with a similar problem themselves and found a useful way to think about it. A similar thing I’d put in this category is help thinking through the relevant considerations - sometimes someone else will alert me to an important question or factor I wasn’t already thinking about (which is importantly different from giving me a piece of factual information or knowledge I didn’t already have.)

  3. Actual opinions. Sometimes what you want is just to tell a bunch of different people about the dilemma you’re facing, and then ask them what they think: what would they do in this situation, or what do they think you should do?

If you’re asking someone for advice, it can be really important to be clear on which of these three things you’re looking for (of course, you might want two or even three of these things.) This helps you to clarify where your uncertainty lies on the problem - is it that you think you’re lacking specific knowledge, do you need help thinking through the problem more clearly, or do you just want to know what this person’s opinion is? This can also help the other person, and avoid a situation where you really want one thing and they assume you’re looking for something completely different - e.g. you’re looking for help structuring the problem but they’re giving you lots of factual information you actually think is irrelevant, or them giving you their opinion when it’s not helpful/wanted.

But the main  point I want to make is that, when we think of asking for advice, I think we default to thinking of it in terms of 3. - we’re looking for other people’s opinions, to then help us form our own judgement. But I actually think this is the least useful and most difficult to deal with of the above three.

A problem I frequently come up against is this: I have a decision to make, and I talk to several different people about it, asking for their opinions. Inevitably, I get conflicting advice from different people, which puts me in a bit of a bind. If one smart, thoughtful person thinks I should definitely do A, and another smart, thoughtful person thinks I definitely shouldn’t do A, what should I do? Should I somehow try and weigh their opinions based on their relative smart-ness and thoughtful-ness? Should I go and ask a bunch more people for advice on how they deal with conflicting advice from other people...?

It’s hard for me know what to do with someone’s opinion - and how much weight to give it relative to other opinions - if I don’t know the process that led them to it, what assumptions were made, what information they had. I don’t know how to resolve disagreement in opinions between two people, and therefore who to agree with, if I don’t know exactly where their disagreement lies.

So if you want to integrate different people’s opinions, you really need to know (a) what process/structure they’re using for thinking about the problem, and (b) what assumptions they’re making and what information they do and don’t have. But then, you’d be better off focusing directly on these things - asking other people to help you structure your thinking around the problem, challenge the assumptions you’re making, suggest additional considerations, and give you any factual information you might be missing. That is, when asking people for ‘advice’ - to help you make decisions - it seems much more useful to explicitly ask people for help structuring the decision, or to point out considerations or bits of information you might be missing - than to ask them for their ‘opinion.’

This also lessens the pressure on advice-givers. If you think that someone wants you to tell them what they should do with their life, that can feel pretty daunting! If instead what they want is just someone to help structure the problem clearly, or your knowledge on a specific part of the issue, it’s a lot easier to know how to be helpful.

I think sometimes when I start asking people for their opinions - rather than help thinking through the decision myself, or additional information - I’m actually looking for reassurance more than anything else. Dealing with uncertainty can be scary, and sometimes I’d like to outsource the difficulty of it to someone else, so I can absolve myself from the responsibility and pressure of it. But of course, when I get conflicting suggestions from difficult people, this just puts me back in charge and often in a position of even greater uncertainty. I’d be better off taking more responsibility for the decision myself - accepting the uncertainty, doing my best to navigate it myself, getting support from others around me - not trying to pass the uncertainty onto someone else.