When advice to negotiators is wasted

By PON Staffon / Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “Is Giving Advice a Waste of Time?” first published in the Negotiation newsletter, July 2007.

It’s the end of the week, and you’re trying to crank out an important report. A colleague slips into your office. “Do you have a couple of minutes?” he asks. “I need your advice on a negotiation that’s falling apart.”

In the article “Turn Your Adversary into Your Advocate” in the June 2007 issue of the Negotiation newsletter, Katie A. Liljenquist and Adam D. Galinsky describe the benefits of strategically seeking advice. When asked for advice, most people will try to help.

Another article, however, suggests that advice givers may be wasting their time. Surveying 20 years of research, professors Silvia Bonaccio of the University of Ottawa and Reeshad S. Dalal of Purdue University found that advice often has little effect on people’s decisions.

One explanation for this phenomenon is egocentric biasing, or the tendency to prefer our own solutions to others’ even when we’re confronting novel problems. People become somewhat more deferential when receiving advice from a superior or an expert, as well as when the advice is actively sought rather than unsolicited.

Why do people seek advice if they aren’t likely to follow it? Seeking advice may be a way of insulating oneself from criticism. It also buys a little time when someone is wavering.

In negotiation, giving useful advice is especially challenging if you’re not at the bargaining table yourself. You can’t judge how persuasive your advisee has been in explaining his proposals or whether the other party has been pushed to the limit.

Instead of focusing tactically on what your colleague should do, you may be more helpful as a sounding board. Has your colleague rigorously examined his outside options, for example, and those of the other side? Has he identified the underlying causes of a stalemate? Perhaps you can help him brainstorm other ways of creating value. In just a quick conversation, you may give your colleague a fresh perspective—and then get back to your own pressing work.