What Giving and Receiving Advice Does to Our Brains

My friend “Mary” has a daughter going through the sudden and unexpected end of her marriage.

Mary is a loving mother. “I want what’s best for her,” she explained. “But my daughter has such a negative reaction to everything I say. No matter how good my intention, or how nonjudgmental I try to be, she thinks I’m trying to tell her what to do. Then she gets angry and defensive.”

(A quick refresher on dealing with someone in amygdala hijack may help.)

All of this got me thinking about what advice does in the brains of the giver and the receiver. Here’s what I discovered.

We underestimate the boost that giving advice gives us.

In a study, 700 adults (average age: 35) were asked to give their best advice to others — on a health, financial, work or social topic — and receive some in return. Just 34% expected that giving advice would be more motivating than getting it. Yet 72% reported feeling more motivated by giving it.

Yes: this explains your know-it-all Aunt Lou and the other people who have told you what you should be doing all your life — and why they keep doing it!

Knowing this, it seems that Mary might support her daughter by listening — and avoiding anything with even a whiff of advice. And Mary could ask her daughter to give her advice, which will boost that young woman’s own feeling of competence and worth.

This certainly is a heads-up for us as leaders. Giving unsolicited feedback actually de-motivates people. Want them to be more engaged and feel better? Ask them for advice.