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Negotiating Life

Advice for the Advisor

Being right is not enough

From the White House to the family kitchen, advice drives countless decisions every day. Effective advice often spells the difference between success and failure on the job, contentment and frustration at home, and winning and losing elections. But to offer it, you need to understand not only the problem at hand but also the principles that underlie a beneficial advising process. Here are five such principles, drawn from my book The Wise Advisor, to help the next time you sit down to advise your co-workers, your boss, your candidate, or your kids.

Know your advisee. Effective advice must always take into account the other person’s needs, circumstances, and values. Too often, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals see all clients as interchangeable. They behave like Delphic oracles, never asking people who they are, what they want, and why they want it. Bear in mind, too, that those who tell you their troubles may not always want your advice. Just because your daughter complains about a problem she’s having with a teacher doesn’t mean she wants your ideas on how to solve it.

Help, or at least do no harm. Sometimes you can propose specific helpful actions. For example, when Tom, who had accepted a job with a promise to stay with the company for at least a year, received a better offer from another firm two months later, he consulted his minister about what to do. The minister said it would be unethical to quit the job but suggested that it would be fine to renegotiate his obligation by offering to find a replacement for himself. Tom did just that and left the firm with a clear conscience.

However, you should remember that in certain cases, advice has the potential to injure. It’s worth noting as well that on occasion, the best way to help may be to cause a little pain. When Lyndon Johnson was deciding whether to seek reelection in the face of antiwar protests, one advisor told him, “You can run, Mr. President, but the only places you’ll be able to campaign are Fort Bragg and the aircraft carrier Enterprise.” Johnson chose not to run.

Agree on your role. Will you act as a director, taking control of your advisee’s actions, or as a servant, responding to your advisee’s demands? Or will you and your advisee form a partnership, working closely together? The precise nature of your relationship with an advisee should be the product of negotiation. It typically depends on such factors as your respective experience and personalities, the nature of the problem you face, and the organizational setting in which you find yourselves.

Never give a solo performance. Effective advising requires the active participation of the advisee. One reason is that the advisee has crucial information. For instance, in the mid-seventies, the International Monetary Fund, responding to Egypt’s request for financial advice, strongly urged that all food subsidies be eliminated, and dismissed Egyptian officials’ fears of a violent public reaction. It was a mistake: widespread rioting ensued as food prices rose, and the government hastily brought back the subsidies.

Seeking the advisee’s participation is also important because the ethics of the situation require it. After all, the problem is the advisee’s, not yours, and the advisee always bears the consequences of the advice. As President Kennedy once remarked, the political advisor, after giving advice, goes on to other advice, but the politician who has received the advice goes on to an election. In addition, people are more likely to follow advice if they have had a hand in determining what it will be. It’s never helpful to say, as I heard one lawyer tell his client, “Let me do the thinking for both of us.”

Be clear and constructive. Advising is individualized instruction. Rather than pontificating, keep checking to see if your advisee understands your advice and knows how to use it.

And when you yourself are the advisee? There may be times when you cannot judge the substance of the advice, but you can always evaluate the advising process. The next time you are listening to solemn words from your doctor, lawyer, political consultant, or brother-in-law, consider how well such individuals know you, how committed they are to helping and protecting you, how conscientious they’ve been in securing your agreement on their role, how much they’ve involved you in the advising process, and how clear and constructive their advice is.

Jeswald W. Salacuse is the Henry J. Braker Professor of Law and former dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts. His most recent book is The Law of Investment Treaties (Oxford University Press).

  © 2011 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155