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How (Not) to Give Advice

About a million times a week (okay, that’s a slight exaggeration), I hear clients tell themselves that they need to do something. They also share with me what they direct other people about to do—stop smoking, go back to college, see a doctor, quit playing the lottery, etc. They order people around the same way they order themselves around and it doesn’t work for others any better than it works for them.

So, it was with great delight that I read a recent column by Dr. Ellen Glovsky, “Giving Advice in Motivational Interviewing” in a recent newsletter. Here’s her advice on giving unsolicited advice: “The truth is that most people will become more resistant when confronted and in this way the clinician’s behavior can cause resistance. I know it feels urgent in a situation in which the client is highly likely to harm themselves. It is very important to not push for a plan for change until the client is ready to hear it, and to be able to recognize readiness to change. Once we do hear signals of readiness to change, what works better than confrontation is “explore-offer-explore” in which we explore the client’s ideas about change, offer our advice and suggestions, and then discuss how that information might influence their plans for change.”

Therapists learn to use advice sparingly and generally only with a client’s permission (though I’m sure I’ve broken this rule numerous times without even realizing it) because no one enjoys being told what to do. We didn’t like it when we were children and we certainly don’t like it any more as adults. As children, it makes us feel as if we have no say in making decisions and, as adults, it makes us seem too stupid to come up with our own answers.

There are usually three reactions that people have to being told what to do: 1) They ignore what you’re saying (even if you’re 100% right) because they’re insulted that you’re trying to boss them around; 2) They agree that your idea is an excellent one and sound thrilled that you shared your wisdom with them—and then they ignore or do the opposite of what you suggested; 3) They get defensive about being given unsolicited advice and how off the mark your suggestion is. All three are lose-lose situations.

Think about how you feel when people tell you what to do when you haven’t asked for advice. Now think about how often you tell someone, “You need to…” The truth is that you want them to do something and that they need to do no such thing. For tips on motivational interviewing, visit



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