The benefit of bad advice

July 1, 2013 in How to, Provocative by

Consider, if you will, the perpetual advice asker.

You know, the one who continually comes to you to ask our advice, and then argues with it… Or they say “Yeah, great idea” and then come back a week later, having done none of what you suggested, and are desperately in need of more advice. Sooner or later it seems like your job is to simply agree that ‘the whole thing stinks’ or crack and shout at them. We’ve all got that friend, don’t we?

Yeah, I’m that friend. The problem is, I don’t know when I’m doing it. I start off genuinely wanting someone’s advice, but I’ve been sitting and stewing for hours before asking them. I’ve already run through an arsenal of imagined solutions, and dreamed up some pretty good reasons why none of them will work. When they offer the predictable solutions that are similar to my own, I feel mildly annoyed. “I’ve thought of that” I hear myself say, and immediately recoil at the stench of snark on my voice. When they offer new solutions that I’ve not considered, I feel a little bit put out, and stupid for not having thought of that.

I do it. Many of us do. We construct problematic fantasies and the live within them as if they’re real. It’s a bit stupid, and annoying, but that doesn’t get us anywhere, so: Here’s an provocative technique that works wonderfully on idiots like me:

Offer bizarre solutions

Intentionally give them bad advice:

“Wait until your boss isn’t watching, and then shank him in the base of the neck”
“Build a time machine and interrupt your parents just before they conceive you”
“Turn up to work naked and try to convince everyone else they’re in your dream”

The sillier the solutions, the more effective they seem to be. It sounds absurd, but try it. Here’s why I think it works:

You harness the arguing. When we don’t agree with someone about something, we’ll seek to disagree with them about everything. If they say “Well this is a terrible situation” and you say “No, you can fix it!” they naturally want to argue and find reasons to support their claim. Offering stupid suggestions exploits this annoying quirk. When you offer ridiculous suggestions, the subtext is “Well there aren’t any reasonable solutions that would work, so let’s come up with absurd ones”. You’re suggesting that their situation is unfixable – and in doing so you take the side of the argument. When they argue (or politely disagree) with you, they must take the position that it is manageable. You challenge them to come up with solutions, and the solutions they come up with  must be reasonable, because yours are batshit crazy.

They laugh. The sillier these ideas are, the funnier they get. Laughter elevates our mood and wracks the body with convulsions of happiness. From there, problems seem smaller and more manageable. Even if the problem remains huge (because let’s face it, some problems are huge and unfixable), when we laugh, the we are less likely to think about it in a recursive, destructive way. Enjoying the humour, people sometimes join in the absurdity and offer some silly suggestions of their own. While this lunacy might not ‘solve’ the imagined problem, it is solving the real problem: That you’re arguing with someone you like about something that doesn’t actually exist.

They become more creative. Worrying about the future is nothing but a problem with creativity. We can’t imagine a solution. The more stressed we get, the more risk-averse we become, the more stifled our creativity gets. Laughing bathes the brain in endorphins which, coupled with the arguing (or collaborating on the weirdness), sets their brain into a creative state. The absurdity lets them embrace all possible solutions. That creativity gives them a chance at fixing the problem for themselves.

They come up with their own solutions. This is the most-repeated bit of advice in any area of persuasion, leadership or general life: People prefer their own solutions. Even if it’s a stupid idea and clearly won’t work, we’ll have at it with enthusiasm rather than do something that someone else (i.e. you) suggested. When you offer reasonable solutions to someone who’s stuck in that ‘I have a huge unfixable problem’ mindset, you’re throwing them away. They might not even do it while sitting in front of you, but the creative mindset will let them go off and think differently about their problem, come up with solutions, and act on them.

Interestingly, I’ve found the only danger is in offering solutions which aren’t ridiculous enough. I once told someone to deal with insomnia by getting really drunk and passing out. The next day he returned massively hung over, missing his wallet and phone. He’d gone and got totally comatose and passed out in public. Oops.

Now I wish I didn’t need to say this (because it’s not bad advice), but: Sometimes people do want useful advice. I suggest that at least initially, only use this when you’re in a recurrent situation that regularly leads to somewhere unhappy – like those times when you get in a conversation with a friend or partner and think “Oh god, this again”.

And when you do it, do it with love. Make it an enjoyable experience for both of you.

…and if you absolutely must suggest something useful, it’s often effective to mention it in passing. Just throw it away as something that ‘ordinary people might do’ while making it clear you don’t consider this person to be one of them: “Well some people would request a meeting with their boss to discuss the issue… But you’re a rogue. You don’t do things just because they ‘work’, you prefer having problems to complain about, right!”. You can say quite harsh things of you’re keyed in with someone, and you can ensure that they find it funny.

And yes, this whole post is a #dirn.