Best Practices for Foresters Giving Advice to Landowners
By Lyn Van Swol and Bret Shaw
When you give advice to a woodland owner, how often do you consider the types that you provide? From research on advice, there are four different ways to consider giving it. Advice can be actively solicited by the recipient (e.g., “Hey, can you give me advice?”) or it can be permitted by the recipient, where you ask if they want it and they agree (e.g., “Do you want some advice?”). Both solicited and permitted advice are wanted.
In contrast, guaranteed advice is just given without asking whether the recipient wants it or waiting for a solicitation. Therefore, it is often unclear if guaranteed advice is wanted or not because the recipient was not asked beforehand. Imposed advice is advice given after an offer has been rebuffed by the potential recipient. Advice recipients often react most negatively to imposed advice; it is most likely to threaten the recipient’s competence and sense of their personal rights to manage their lands as they wish. People react most positively to wanted advice. Therefore, tread carefully if an overture of advice is rebuffed.
One reason it is important to consider how you frame advice is because giving someone advice can threaten their face. What does this mean? First, advice can threaten what we call “positive face.” This is the perception that people hold of themselves that they are competent and able to make high-quality decisions. In other words, people might perceive that you are giving them advice because you think they are not smart enough to make a decision or solve the problem on their own. Second, advice can threaten “negative face,” which is people’s need to act independently and not be told what to do. So, giving advice might be perceived as a command that is limiting what a person can do independently. The less control people have over the advice process, the more likely they are going to perceive your advice as a threat. Thus, people are obviously going to be more receptive to advice that they solicit and less receptive to advice imposed on them.
To reduce threats to positive face, one suggestion is to bolster the person’s competence, while simultaneously giving them advice. This could involve a comment such as, “You obviously have done a lot of high-quality work here and know what you are doing, so I’m going to just make some additional specific recommendations….” To reduce threats to negative face, affirming the advice recipient’s power to do as they please is helpful. This could involve adding a comment such as “Obviously, you can do as you like” or “It’s completely your decision” to the advice.
So, how can you offer advice without imposing it on someone? One suggestion comes from the integrated model of advice (Feng, 2009). This model suggests that before offering advice, an effective advisor actually engages in two other behaviors before even attempting to give advice. First, the advisor engages in problem inquiry, asking the recipient to explain their problem in as much detail as needed for the advisor to understand it. Thus, the advisor can use this not only to show they are listening to the recipient, but also to tailor the advice specifically to the problem. Second, the advisor offers emotional support while listening to the recipient’s problem. This can include comments like, “Oh gosh, that must have been so frustrating to have those deer eat your newly planted trees” or “It’s unfortunate that higher than normal rainfall created soil conditions that were too wet for your new trees to survive.” In essence, emotional support lets the advice recipient know you are listening but also that you empathize with their reaction to their problem. When people feel you understand and empathize with their problem, they are more likely to ask you directly for advice and be more open to advice. It also respects the recipient that you do not butt in directly, but are sensitive enough to ask questions and listen first.
Many foresters spend much of their time engaging with and giving advice to woodland owners. The insights offered here can help assure that the advice given by foresters to woodland owners is more likely to be followed.
Feng, B. (2009). Testing an integrated model of advice giving in supportive interactions, Human Communication Research, 35, 115–129.