I have trouble taking advice from authority figures. How to change?
June 28, 2014 4:03 PM   Subscribe

By "authority figures" I mean people with more experience who are, extrapolating from that, more knowledgeable than myself. I know asking for advice on how to take advice is ironic, but help.

I'm not sure where to begin but:

1) A lot of advice, even when it's good, is not given in a respectful manner. For me, the delivery of information gets wrapped up in what kind of person I think is delivering it, and I wind up irritated and distracted whenever I try to implement advice from someone I feel is disrespectful. I wind up questioning whether it was legitimate advice or someone devising an excuse to put on airs. I frequently find myself wanting to outright contradict advice, even if that advice was something I'd already planned to follow through on independently. Once someone provides input, I the reflexive and dire need to invent a way to succeed while doing the exact opposite of what they have suggested. I worry a lot about being treated differently or worse than others.

2) The delivery of advice is frequently hackneyed. Things like, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away," or, "Have you tried medication? (Metafilter ClassicTM)" leave me wondering if the question was truly taken into consideration, or if the person giving advice is just repeating the last thing they heard someone else say.

3) Sometimes, even when the advice is ultimately helpful, it has no immediately apparent value, or the value of it is taken for granted. It's hard to trust that others know what they're talking about, and it's hard to stick things out without resentment (like how Daniel-san got mad after having to wax Mr. Miyagi's car).

4) Because I overthink things, I have a hard time following or understanding all but the most specific of instructions. For instance, if I were wearing a king costume and the costume manager, for exaggerated example, told me: "Get rid of the crown, it's too big," I'd have a hard time following that. My mind would immediately take it to a dozen different places, ie, "Does he mean the crown is too big overall, or just too big for me? Does he want me to get rid of it permanently or will the crown be okay in other situations? Maybe he was actually saying '2Bigg' which is a name brand of costume crowns. He thinks I'm wearing a hat from a company that abuses laborers from other countries and that's why he wants me to get rid of it."

I am always misinterpreting people but it's difficult to ask for the level of elaboration that I need (almost always a lot for the advice to be understandable) without feeling like a pest. Additionally, it's hard for me to articulate questions, because I'm not sure what I need to ask in order to understand a person accurately and I don't want to come off as disrespectful (grilling them) or stupid (Why did I bring up labor rights in a conversation about hat sizes?).

Whenever someone says something and I don't understand them, I feel like I'm cornered. I feel like my only options are a) To give up on understanding them, b) To ask for elaboration, but tread on eggshells and fill the questions with so much toadying and sweetness so that it could not possibly be interpreted as offensive (insincere on top of being deeply anxiety inducing) c) Ask normally, without a lot of embellishment or explaining of myself, but at the risk of seeming like I'm grilling the person in question. I don't exude an air of friendliness (for me, it feels creepy to smile a lot) and my questions are numerous and inane, so it's easy for me to imagine why someone would assume I was being a condescending dick by asking so many. After past experience, I almost always stick to A and B. I wish I could use C (speaking normally to people) without coming off like an ass.

5) That's about it. I'm not sure how to contextualize this information without giving too much away, but in the situation that we're in, it's normal for some people to be giving advice to others. Also, this situation is not occurring in a work environment (thank god), so all of the baggage that would be wrapped up in that would not be relevant.
posted by jumelle to Human Relations (12 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I think all of your concerns have a certain amount of legitimacy. The only cure I really know for basically all of them is to establish a stronger relationship to the individuals giving advice to you so that communication goes smoother when you have questions and so that you can more clearly judge whose advice to trust based on experience. Not trusting that the person really has your best interest at heart is a very valid concern when they behave in a fundamentally disrespectful fashion and not trusting that it is really well thought through is another very valid concern and actually happens quite a lot.
posted by Michele in California at 4:31 PM on June 28, 2014

There's medication for that. Kidding!

1. I remind myself that people love to feel useful - and that giving advice makes people feel useful. Sharing experience is also a way people make themselves feel valued. And there's nothing wrong with that.

2. I grant myself the right to disregard advice that doesn't mesh with me.

3. If it's important (like, say, at work), I give myself the right to ask for as many clarifications as I need. Better to have a 15 minute awkward conversation than spend days doing something the wrong way. Plus, refer to point 1: it gives the advisee the chance to feel even more helpful.
posted by Milau at 4:32 PM on June 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is going to involve a lot of spitballing on my part, but to me it sounds like either the prospect of ever being wrong or of not understanding something is excessively upsetting, probably because getting something wrong or failing to understand something threatens your status somehow. I think you may be asking lots of questions and discounting any answers (or advice) that could somehow maybe possibly in some universe be wrong or misunderstood, not because it's likely that you actually misunderstood or that the information is actually wrong, but because the consequences of having misunderstood or gotten or done something wrong seem so terrible. If I'm on the right track then it might help to gently experiment with letting yourself be wrong now and then so you can see that being wrong is rarely a catastrophe. A lot of the time it just doesn't matter at all in any practical sense. This doesn't mean you have to do whatever someone older or in a position of authority ever suggests, but your judgement seems clouded by anxiety. Your anxieties matter, but you can't get rid of those by catering to them.

Did you ever see the article How Not To Talk To Your Kids, that went viral a few years ago? You might find it interesting. Or, not.
posted by jon1270 at 4:47 PM on June 28, 2014 [7 favorites]

Practicing "Most Respectful Interpretation" has been hugely helpful for me.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 4:49 PM on June 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

Do you actually listen and wait and evaluate what's being said, or are you focusing exclusively on the you-as-the-victim filter you use to process content when you're being addressed by peers or people in authority?

You project a great deal onto other people. What makes you so fragile that you can't ask someone, "Hey, I want to make sure I heard you right. You're asking for XYZ, yes?" Not asking, assuming that you now have to walk on eggshells if you do ask, basically everything you're doing instead of just asking for what you need is putting you in a perpetual cycle of being, ultimately, a lousy listener. That's what appears to be hindering you here IMO.
posted by Hermione Granger at 6:23 PM on June 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

There is a new book on exactly this topic, Thanks for the Feedback. I have not read it, but people I respect have found it useful.
posted by ferdydurke at 11:18 PM on June 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding ferdyduke. I have read it, and it is precisely what you're looking for. The full title - which could have been written based on your question - is "Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Even When It Is Off-Base, Unfair, Poorly Delivered, and Frankly, You're Not in the Mood)"
posted by equipoise at 11:37 PM on June 28, 2014

My first impression is that you've never encountered an "authority figure" who was demonstrably worthy of respect.

Common enough problem, and I've been frustrated with that too often also.

But there are definitely people who I respect because they deserve it.

If I may be excused for using a sports analogy, you sound like you need a change in scenery, and could profit from being traded to another team. But in a lot of fields, getting a job in the first place is an incredible ordeal.

An accompanying problem might be that you don't feel appreciated to the level that you feel that you rate.

I still don't know what to do about it other than to keep sending coverletters/resumes out every week and trying to consistently make the effort to make my current workplace less sucktastic. Keep making the effort to make the organization better. Do your best at being awesome, and maybe try to "aggrandize" yourself. It's the last thing I want to do but playing the game might be the only way to be able to get the resources to be successful at a dysfunctional environment.
posted by porpoise at 11:57 PM on June 28, 2014

I'm reminded of this lyric from My Fair Lady:
She will beg you for advice,
your reply will be concise.
And she'll listen very nicely,
and go out and do precisely what she wants!

    --Sung / spoken by the Henry Higgins character
That's pretty much my approach. I take people's advice with a huge grain of salt, since I have found over the years that a substantial fraction of people don't know what they're talking about. (Of course, you have to be careful in certain situations, especially at work.)
posted by alex1965 at 6:48 AM on June 29, 2014

I could be incredibly off base here, but I have an honest observation: your literal mindset and discomfort with friendliness remind me ever so slightly of a man I know with Asperger's syndrome. He is brilliant and creative, but can come across as disinterested or oppositional when really he is just trying to "get it". He succeeds best when he explains to his audience what he's thinking.

Or you could just be a person who values authenticity above all else, and therefore you struggle with putting on a smile when you don't mean it. I think honesty is the way to go here, too. If you explain that you sometimes struggle with the details (with the people you care about, not everyone you interact with), it will help them see that your questioning is not meant to undermine, but to understand.

This approach will still maybe annoy some people or come across as tedious, but no personality is going to please everyone. I think it's better to explain than to withhold, especially since you sound concerned that you not seem like a jerk. Your honesty in your post is very endearing and if you can simplify it down to quick explanation, I think it's worth sharing with would-be advisors.
posted by hippychick at 7:25 AM on June 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would strongly suggest that you undergo a psychological examination with a psychologist or psychiatrist. This and past questions detail what seem to be extraordinary difficulties interacting with people, and I think it's going to be hard to work on improving individual social situations without getting a better sense of whether there's an underlying cause for these difficulties.
posted by jaguar at 6:59 PM on June 29, 2014

For instance, if I were wearing a king costume and the costume manager, for exaggerated example, told me: "Get rid of the crown, it's too big," I'd have a hard time following that. My mind would immediately take it to a dozen different places, ie, "Does he mean the crown is too big overall, or just too big for me? Does he want me to get rid of it permanently or will the crown be okay in other situations? Maybe he was actually saying '2Bigg' which is a name brand of costume crowns. He thinks I'm wearing a hat from a company that abuses laborers from other countries and that's why he wants me to get rid of it."

Possible explanation:
The issue could be more, anxiety, or... how do I put it? Fear of uncertainty? Lack of control?
If, in situations like the above, you had to really think about what the most likely interpretation or action that the other person wanted you to take is, (in this case, take off the crown and choose something else) - did you think of it?
Did you actually think of it quite early on, but discard it for some reason, and keep perseverating for more explanations?
If so, try and figure out why you kept thinkg, 'over' thought, why did you discard the most likely explanation? I see this happen when someone is feeling anxious or irritated, and they believe somewhere inside, if they get the 'right' answer it will make them feel less anxious or irritated.
If they get a correct or workable answer, but they are still feeling jittery, they'll abandon it, and keep looking for another answer, or get really 'fighty' unless something else happens to calm them down.
Problem is, the reason they are feeling anxious might have nothing to do with the conversation. It might be that they didn't have enough sleep last night, or a tummy ache, or a fight with family yesterday, or that this conversation reminds them of a bad conversation from another day.
Feeling 'in control' of a situation can make people feel less anxious, even when they are wrong. Some people get really angry and stubborn in some situations because it avoids what they would otherwise be feeling, especially if it is an unpleasant feeling, like sad, hurt or scared.
I'm not saying that's you, that last bit is something you might have recognised in other people, and it's useful to keep in mind that people's coping tactics are often more counterproductive than just feeling sad, hurt or scared for a moment. My brain usually just wants to bring emotions to my attention, and once I've paid attention, the feeling itself fades off.

Anyway, coming back around, if there is any chance you are barraging people with questions might be some kind of attempt at self-soothing, and dealing with uncertainty, then really try and work on that, it's very unpleasant for everyone else.
But, if you do you really need to ask the question, it's not rude.

Sorry, that was kind of a bit rambly.


Ok, I think when it comes to advice, pretend it is for someone else. Pretend it is your job to collect this advice, if that helps. Does it seem reasonable? It's much easier to consider it impartially. And if it's good advice for other people, why wouldn't you follow it yourself? Ah, because you've been overthinking and talking yourself round and out of things, because you just "don't want to". I'm not sure how you get there, but I've gotten better at calling myself out on my own bullshit. And it is bullshit, I basically accept that if I would be recommending it for someone else who was exactly like me, it's time to get over myself.

If you were going to pass on this advice to the person who actually needs it, do you have all the details you need to for them to do it, action it? I'm finding work much easier now I have a team - I'm not just asking for myself, but for everyone I work with, and I'm in the habit now.

So, for example:
"Ok, cool, wrong crown for this King costume. Hey Costume Manager, should we still keep this crown for any other outfits?"
posted by Elysum at 11:02 PM on July 2, 2014

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