Increasingly, I find myself in situations where people request advice on important decisions (e.g., career decisions), and I realize that it's important to do well. Unfortunately, I find that giving good advice is difficult. Therefore, I decided to practice this deliberately and have created a five-step algorithm that I've found to be useful. I'm sharing the steps, principles, and underlying reasoning, hoping that it'll be useful to you too! 

 

Why is it important?

Like many other EAs, I find myself surrounded by more and more people who pursue careers with drive and dedication to altruism. This exciting position is accompanied by an increasing number of opportunities to provide input on their crucial decisions related to their career and life in general. Back in February, I realized that there's a solid chance that a good chunk of my impact will come from positively helping those around me be more effective in their thinking, decision-making, and conduct!

Unfortunately, I find that giving good advice is really difficult, and unnuanced advice may very well be actively harmful. This cocktail of importance and difficulty prompted me to sit down and put some thought into how to do this well, hoping that it'd enable me to help others make nuanced and effective decisions in their pursuit of making the world a better place. I created a five-step algorithm that I try to follow whenever I'm engaging in advice-giving to enable myself to bring my A-game, and I'm sharing this, hoping that it'll be useful to you too.

 

What is it based on?

Before we dive into it, I want to clarify that it isn't the most rigorous thing out there. It's mainly based on i) my personal deliberate practice with giving advice, ii) providing career coaching as a group organizer, and iii) conversations with people whom I find to be extraordinary communicators. My personal deliberate practice is based on around 10-20 "high-stakes"-decisions (e.g., "should I take this job or do a PhD?"), hundreds of smaller advice-giving situations, and giving around 20 career coaching sessions with some feedback loops. In the following, I'll go through the steps and principles that are currently very useful to me and explain the underlying reasoning.

 

The Algorithm

Step one: Create an implementation intention

An implementation intention is a simple "if-then plan" and is a widely used way of eliciting behavioral change (e.g., implementing a new habit). If you're familiar with the work of CFAR, you'll know this as a Trigger Action Plan (TAP). This step may seem trivial but when I formulate a clear intention of bringing my A-game (and this algorithm) when giving advice, I'll be much more inclined to actually use these "best practice" principles. Therefore, clarifying triggers is key. The triggers (advice requests or situations) can range from being very clear to highly unspecific. Here're some examples:

"Hi, I'm in the process of applying for this job and have made it to the third stage of the application process. Now that things are getting real, I'd like to get your view on whether I should take this job or accept a PhD-position at Oxford."

"Hi, I'm considering what the topic of my master's thesis should be to best set me up for a career in biosecurity. Do you have any tips?"

"Hi! It'd be great to catch up and also talk about something that's on my mind in the realm of careers."

Relatedly, Michelle Hutchinson wrote an excellent post on how to ask for advice, which outlines an approach for requesting advice in a useful and computationally kind way. 

 

Step two: Begin with the end in mind (just before the advice-giving)

Here I remind myself why I'm doing this. My reminder is something along the lines of "I want to be extraordinarily useful and enable her to become her most impactful self and lead a meaningful life." You may prefer something less sugar-coated, which is perfectly fine - the important thing is that it makes sense to you. Once I've formulated the purpose, I resolve to stay true to this purpose as I set out to understand how I can best help the other person.

I also have a list of some go-to resources that I find myself recommending frequently. An example of one of my go-to resources is:

Charity Entrepreneurship spreadsheet approach (mainly step 1-5)

Note, I try to remind myself that it's important not to overflood the person with resources. I've experienced getting 3-6 recommendations of super lengthy documents, which often just leads to me not reading any of them.

 

Step three: Seek first to understand - then to be understood (during the advice-giving)

This is one of my biggest weaknesses. I often fool myself into believing that I know what's going on prematurely. I'll be like, "Okay, to me, it seems that you care about x and that all you have to do is y and reach out to z". I think this misguided tendency is due to three related silly beliefs.

Belief 1: Smart people are quick at understanding what's going on and assert answers. I like to think that I'm smart and, therefore, I have to make up my mind and assert my answer quickly. 

Belief 2: Others are simply permutations of myself and think, feel, and behave similarly to me. So as soon as I recognize a pattern or a situation from my own life, I readily assume that I know what's going on.

Belief 3: The other person expects me to actively and eagerly participate in the conversation, so I'm supposed to talk a lot - I can't just sit and listen.

Therefore, I have to remind myself that these beliefs aren't aligned with reality nor the purpose I'm trying to stay true to. Instead, I try to remain humble, ask many questions, and summarize what the other person says to ensure that I understand the situation before I speak my mind.

 

Step four: Think before you speak (during the advice-giving)

Now that I'm mindful of the purpose and understand what's going on, it's time to really think before I give advice - at least with high-stakes decisions - and not just say the first thing that comes to mind.

I try to take 15-120 seconds to just sit and think about how I can provide as much value as possible. If I'm having a conversation and are worried about feeling awkward about the silence, I'll simply say that I'll take two minutes to think while getting a glass of water. While thinking, I remind myself of the purpose that I resolved to stay true to. A prompt I like to use at this point is: "What would be the most valuable input I could provide, on the margin?"

 

Step five: Level up (after the advice-giving)

Having good feedback loops is key for leveling up. At the very least, I take two minutes to reflect by asking myself two questions: What went well? What could be improved? However, I've found that my intuitive reflections may be off. In one case, I thought to myself, "Wow, I did really well on this part!" but I later discovered, via feedback from the other person, that this was precisely the thing that was the least useful to her. So, if the situation allows for it, I ask the other person for feedback. Getting their view on one thing that went well and one thing that could be improved is super valuable!

 

There you have it - my five-step algorithm for giving advice. If you like the steps outlined above, you can simply copy-paste them and add them to a document you can open the next time you find yourself in an advice-giving situation. However, don't follow the approach with robotic rigidity and very high deliberation - that probably won't lead to the best results as it may make the conversation contrived. If nothing else, I hope that you're also excited about going out there and give good advice as it may be an excellent opportunity for helping others make good decisions for the betterment of our fellow sentient beings!

 

PS. Please share your tips and thoughts on how this could be improved as I'm certain that this isn't the ideal approach. 

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I like your guidelines. Some others that come to mind:

-Some people are not just looking for advice but to avoid the responsibility of choosing for themselves (they want someone else to tell them what the right answer is). I think it's important to resist this and remind people that ultimately it's their responsibility to make the decision.

-If someone seems to be making a decision out of fear or anxiety, I try to address this and de-dramatize the different options. People rarely make their best decisions if they're afraid of the outcomes.

-I try to show my work and give the considerations behind different pieces of advice. That way if they get new evidence later they can integrate it with the considerations rather than starting from scratch.

You also sort of touch on this but I think it's also helpful to convey when you have genuine uncertainty (not at the cost of needless hedging and underconfidence) and also say when you think someone else (who they have access to) would be likely to have more informed advice on a particular question.