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COMMITMENTS : Advice Is All in How You Give It : We all feel the urge to advise. The approach may be self-serving or altruistic, but be warned: Our words may not go over well.

July 11, 1994|PAULA LYNN PARKS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Suspecting her husband of having an affair, a woman confided in her friend, Judye Reynolds.

Reynolds, who has been happily married for 10 years and wanted to help, suggested Bible readings and an appointment with a particular marriage counselor.

But because of the deeply personal nature of the problem, Reynolds, of Mission Hills, said she didn't give her friend advice, only suggestions.

To Reynolds, a computer instructor at Glendale Community College, there's a difference. Advice, she said, involves telling someone how to fix their problem. A suggestion is softer, less direct, she added.

Whatever its form, advice is given so freely so often that many people don't even realize how automatically they offer it, experts say. People seem driven to make things better for both altruistic and selfish reasons.

Advice can range from "the mildest suggestions to the most insistent command," said Gerald Goodman, UCLA psychology professor and author of the "Talk Book: The Intimate Science of Communicating in Close Relationships" (Rodale Press, 1988.)

Advice can be as cautious as "Shouldn't you be resting that foot?" or as direct as "Keep your voice down; the baby is sleeping." People in intimate relationships can successfully use authoritative commands--such as "stretch before you run"--that they would never use in a casual chat with a neighbor, he said.

Although advice may be worth what you pay for it, most counsel is given free to family and friends and to a lesser extent to colleagues and strangers, Goodman said.

Topping the list of motivators for giving guidance is the desire to help someone, he added. The advice, although perhaps presumptuous, is still sincere.

Reynolds said her heart is in the right place when she gives advice. "If someone seems desperate, I feel awful leaving him hanging when I have an idea. . . . It's out of love; not a busybody-ness," she said.

Suggestions can also be driven by a desire to advance one's agenda, rather than improve someone else's lot. Although not necessarily mean-spirited, these recommendations are always selfish.

Robert Garner, president and founder of a Santa Ana-based mortgage brokerage firm, said he is regularly offered advice by salespeople.

It "is probably self-serving," he said, especially in matters of pay raises. Still, he will not automatically dismiss it. "That doesn't mean it doesn't warrant looking into," he added.

Busy people sometimes offer quick but unsatisfying suggestions, especially in dealings with acquaintances and co-workers, Goodman said.

Picture this, he said: You're on your way down the hall at the office when a colleague stops to chat. He says he is worried about his taxes. You suggest he read a book on income taxes, promise to do lunch and head off.

The motive for superficial pieces of wisdom is to avoid dealing with a serious complaint and still appear courteous. The adviser may be rushed or emotionally unable to deal with a painful story, Goodman said.

Giving advice can be ego boosting, allowing someone to feel smart and important. One way people can experience their importance is vicariously through listening to call-in radio shows and reading columns in newspapers or magazines.

"It gives the (reader) an opportunity to put himself in the position of the advice-giver," said psychologist Leslie Maxson, who has a practice in Glendale and writes the "Can We Talk?" advice column in L.A. Parent magazine.

Certainly readers and listeners also want to gain information and be assured that their problems aren't so bad--but the real joy is in second-guessing the expert. In mentally drawing on their experiences to aid the helpless caller or writer, people can confirm that they know more than both the questioner and the adviser.

And on subjects about which people are truly knowledgeable, few can resist being the adviser, Goodman said.

Even Goodman acknowledged that as a former race car driver, he must tell people how to drive. "I can't resist advising people on the best way to negotiate a corner or the best way to time gear shifts. The urge to advise is so strong that I'll create a scene and become obnoxious."

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