Cultivating, Captivating That Receptive Audience
Your co-worker pulls up to your building where you are waiting outside, to give you a ride to an offsite training. When you get into her car, you notice she is not wearing her seatbelt. You smell cigarette smoke.
Loud, combative voices blare from her car stereo, which is tuned to contentious talk radio.
You see a large bag of potato chips in the backseat, and she has an open can of energy drink in the center console.
Your observations create opinions. But are any of them worth mentioning. And if so, what would you actually say?
Driving without wearing a seatbelt is a crime, so perhaps this is a fair topic of conversation. What about the rest? Maybe you are a smoking, enrgy drink-guzzling talk radio fan yourself.
But — If you are a health-conscious naturalist with a sensitive nose, and the olfactory assault combined with the rough language on air is offending your sensibilities. . . .
What do you say?
Many people would say nothing, especially if your co-worker is doing you a favor by giving you a ride. Perhaps catching a lift with a different colleague or calling a taxi-service is in order next time.
But what if you are concerned about the habits of someone you love?
Perhaps a friend or family member is drinking too much, taking drugs, or engaging in risky behavior — personally, financially, or otherwise. You are probably much more likely to speak up.
But where is the line? Research provides some answers.
Carefully Sharing When You Care
Many who are disappointed, depressed, or suffering loss are seeking a listening ear.
If you find yourself in the position of trusted confidant, consider carefully the parameters of your role. Should you express understanding, offer condolences, or give advice? To help answer this question, first consider why the speaker sought you out.
Bo Feng and Eran Magen ( in 2016) explored the appropriateness of giving advice within close relationships. Although recognized as a hallmark of supportive interaction, they note that giving advice may not always have positive results, and can sometimes harm the recipient, as well as the relationship.
In their research, they examined participant responses to friends who expressed discontent, but did not ask for advice. They found a link between relational closeness and providing unsolicited advice. Specifically, they found that participants were more likely to give unsolicited advice to friends they felt closer to.
How long did the participants wait to weigh in? Feng and Magen (ibid.) found that such advice was given very early on within the interaction in about 70% of the cases.
Is Misery Seeking Company, or . . . Advice?
There many reasons people share information — even negative information, other than to solicit advice. Feng and Magen (supra.) note that research establishes a myriad of motivations for sharing personal problems, such as to seek understanding, sympathy, or simply to establish shared identity.
The key for listeners, is resisting the temptation to interpret information sharing as solicitation. Chiming in with your own ideas and advice is much easier when directly solicited. We have no problem sharing our perspective when someone prefaces a conversation with "I would love your advice."
But when should you offer advice to people who do not ask for it, and do not express depression, dismay, or discontent? Apparently, it depends on receiver receptivity.
Ready to Listen: Receiver Receptivity
Feng and Magen (surpa.) note that research reveals that relational closeness has a strong impact on receiver receptivity. Perhaps this is no surprise.
Yet sometimes, we take advice about the most important things in our lives from complete strangers — who possess the necessary expertise. Medical professionals are one obvious example. But even here, listeners have to be ready.
Stephen A. Buetow (in 1999) examined the question of whether a general practitioner should offer unsolicited advice to patients who smoke.
Buetow suggested that antismoking advice under the circumstances was a competitive rather than collaborative behavior, and that doctors should first assess whether patients were ready for change.
Buetow (ibid.) acknowledges prior research establishes that patients expect physicians to focus on providing healthcare, not engage patients in moral deliberation or pass judgment on their values. He suggests offering antismoking advice to patients when they are receptive, which can be tested by a screening question, "How are you feeling about your smoking?"
Knowledge is Power: Share Wisely
Apparently, even in the absence of an explicit request for assistance, the closer you are to the listener, the more receptive they are likely to be to your unsolicited advice. If you possess specialized knowledge that you feel could help an acquaintance or even a stranger, first gauge receiver receptivity, in order to share wisely.
This column was originally published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick is a career prosecutor, named the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year, and recognized by her peers as one of the Top Ten criminal attorneys in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript. She has completed over 150 trials ranging from human trafficking, to domestic violence, to first-degree murder. She is President of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals San Diego Chapter and an ATAP Certified Threat Manager. Dr. Patrick is a frequent media commentator with over 4,000 appearances including CNN, Fox News Channel, Newsmax, and many others. She is author of "Red Flags" (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, is a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony, and plays the electric violin with a rock band. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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