Why Do Some People Not Listen to Advice or Recommendations?

As graduate and doctoral students we often do not want to listen to advice, recommendations, or criticism. Doctoral students especially are strong willed, independent minded, competitive, and often have large egos (not in my field of social work though, we are gentle creatures). It can hurt us students and as academics, however, to be so resistant to advice. Most of the time the advice we receive is constructive criticism, and we should be mature enough to be able to consider it so.. We do not have to accept every piece of advice but we should consider all advice given. No one person, even PhD students, have all the answers and all the knowledge. (Want to learn how PhD students are evaluated, you should read this helpful post about evaluating PhD students.)

In this post we outline some conscious and unconscious reasons why people in general, and students in particular, resist receiving advice. We examine the reasons we as doctoral students do not listen to advice and recommendations, then apply this analysis to understanding why our students, advisees, or staff do not listen to our recommendations and advice. Once you understand why some people do not listen to advice or recommendations, being on the receiving end of dismissed advice will feel less personal. You might also be able to consider how to present your criticism or recommendations in a more constructive manner so they will be received more positively and considered more often. 

Dave believes that a lot of resistance to accepting recommendations or advice has to do with the level of social influence the advice giver has on the person receiving the advice. Check out what Dave has to say about this topic:

Protecting a point of view

A lot of the resistance to advice and criticism has to do with protecting one’s  point of view. Everyone has a lived reality and subjective experiences. Depending on many factors, we all have lived realities that can differ widely. Some of us are impacted by oppressive messages received from society and some of our voices are marginalized. You may feel that as a student, accepting advice or recommendations will change the subjective nature, tone, or unique perspectives of  your work — which you view as uniquely yours. This can be true and changes that are recommended can dilute your ideas or change your tone. 

But you do not have to accept every critique and make every change. When you receive advice or critiques of your work, put these recommendations aside for a few days and let them settle; then return to your work with a fresh look at things and think about whether the advice is all that bad. Do not change the overall tone of your work or your concept, but do try to think openly about how this recommendation or advice could enhance, clarify, or even broaden your idea, proposal, concept, paper, or whatever it is you are working on. 

Check out Dave’s vlog on PhD Snobbery: How To Encourage More Pragmatism and Humility in Academia

A lot of resistance to advice also has to do with who is giving the advice. We may disregard some advice because we perceive that the person providing it is not influential enough in their field so why pay attention or make changes based on their feedback. Other advice may be taken more readily because the person is very influential in their field and we want our work to be broadly accepted. The idea is, well if that person thinks I should change this, I better do it or my work will not be received well. Therefore, think twice about how you are regarding the person who offered advice and whether you are the one marginalizing their point of view. 

This post was written by Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD candidate in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) and Jessica Russell (freelance writer and digital marketing consultant) on behalf of Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

Resisting advice from those who are different from us

We often also dismiss advice that is coming from someone who is unlike us in some way – more educated, less educated, a different ethnicity, gender, or whatever — and we are resisting their authority and recommendations either consciously or unconsciously because they do not have social influence over us. As human beings we are more apt to take advice from someone who is like us and has social influence or power in our social sphere. 

An example of how some people resist advice because it is coming from someone who is different from them is when the advice comes from “experts.” Not everyone who is considered an expert will be giving the best advice 100% of the time; but most experts know something about their field, and maybe even very much deserve the designation of expert. But many people mistrust advice given by experts in authority because they are perceived as coming from a different cultural and/or social sphere. They could be perceived as coming from a different regional or socioeconomic culture or from an academic or scientific group that speaks a “foreign language” and is not trusted. 

Social power and advice giving

Likewise, even our students or staff can feel that our advice is not to be trusted because we are seen as belonging to an academic or scientific subculture that has a different or unfamiliar set of  social norms or rules. This idea about resistance to advice and its root in social power also applies to why students and others do not listen to our advice. It can be frustrating when students dismiss feedback or simply do not pay attention to our attempts to provide constructive criticism that can improve their work. Afterall, we have more experience than them, right? We wonder whether they do not trust our advice, disagree with it, or simply do not care. But often it has a lot more to do with social influence. 

According to Dave: 

  • Social influence is the ability to change people’s behaviors based on the actions or desires of another. 
  • Power is the ability to exert your desires on someone else to make them do something that they do not want to do.  

Depending on who you are influenced by and recognize as holding power, you are either accepting advice or not. We can learn many lessons about giving and receiving advice and recommendations based on our own reactions to receiving advice as noted in the beginning of our post.

How is this relevant in academia? 

As a doctoral student, you will be called on to give advice or offer recommendations either as an instructor, advisor, supervisor, or mentor. You also will definitely be the one asking for advice and recommendations. It is important to know how to provide influence, as well as how to trust advice given. As the advice giver not everyone will listen or follow, and as the advice taker, we all know we do not always follow the advice we are given. 

Why do people reject advice and how can we respond? 

In the above roles in academia, why do some people discount or dismiss our advice and what should we do about it? Here is Dave’s advice:

  1. People are discounting your arguments. You often cannot outlogic people. The best thing that you can do is lead through action.
  2. People don’t feel like they are getting their voices heard. You can ask them to voice their thoughts and feelings before you proceed.
  3. People are discounting the risks and uncertainties that you are seeing. You need to communicate those risks and other things that you see with a course of action.
  4. Some people will never listen to your advice. You have to realize that some people will never change how they do things. Repeat your concerns over and over, and when other people see your logic they may begin to change as well. Leverage the group that shares your concerns to persuade other people to change their minds. 

What can you do when faced with dissent?

  1. Ask more questions/open ended questions. When you see the logic in your advice it is hard to understand why the person (group) is not listening. Sometimes we know our advice is solid, but what we don’t know or try to understand is where those people are coming from. Ask more questions to understand their perspective and what is going on in their lives and try to better understand why they are resisting. 
  2. Show you care. Talk to them about their issues. You may not be a counselor, but you are human and there is a reason why they came to you. When you show you care beyond the immediate needs you are trying to convey, it is more likely they will consider that what you say is valid. And it will be more likely that they are open to at least trying to take on the advice you have given. 
  3. Show examples of those who were successful. We all hate to hear, “You should be more like your brother.” That is not a good way to show an example. What you can do is talk about former students or colleagues and tell a story of their success. Start with “I remember a student many years ago who was going through something similar to you. She tried xyz…” It is helpful for people to hear that their situation has happened before and people have succeeded. 
  4. Explain in a different way. Common core mathematics was started as a way to explain math in different ways because children learn in different ways. It is the same principle when making recommendations. When students or staff are not understanding or following advice, explain what you mean and what to do in different ways. Offer adjusted alternatives that provide the same end goal. And ask qualifying questions to ascertain where they are stumbling in their comprehension. Giving advice is not as simple as saying words and expecting results. It’s also understanding all the differences between people–cultural, ethnic, socio-economic — and tailoring the message in different ways.. 
  5. Make it fun and enjoyable. It could be as simple as recommending they change their environment. When writing a paper students will spend hours at their computer, often feeling stressed and lonely. Suggest alternate locations: sit at the park; go to a coffee shop, or a sidewalk cafe; take breaks often. Tell them to break up their day with something fun to do. If they are not locals, tell them about ways in which you take advantage of local places to de-stress. 
  6. Lead by example. Talk about your own experiences. Share information about your life that is relevant to the situation at hand. If you’re talking about academics, show them how you apply that to your academic career. Practice what you preach and trust will be built. 
  7. Make accommodations/take baby steps. Recognize when your advice is too much, too soon. Students are overwhelmed and when advice or recommendations immediately feel like an added weight, it causes more stress. Offer only step one or two at first. Give them avenues to try and let them know that if they are successful or not, you have other avenues they can try to rectify the situation that required your advice. 
  8. Recognize the signs of a crisis. Learn to recognize the signs of mental distress and provide resources available to help students, staff, and others  first get their mental footing on solid ground. Check in with them to show not only that you care, but that you are there for them. Knowing someone is in your corner is half the battle. 

Whether in work or academia, and whether you are giving advice or asking for recommendations, take the “advice” above into consideration. There will be many students and colleagues with an “it won’t happen to me” mentality. There will be those who have a hard time listening to authority or those who discount the advice based on what they are going through. 

It is important to not simply go through the motions, regurgitate logical advice, and expect positive results. As an advisor, as a person people go to for advice and recommendations, you need to be worthy of their trust. Sometimes speaking to you will be the last step before a person considers quitting. 

It is especially important to take that position you hold seriously. If you can’t or don’t want to take the steps above to understand the people you counsel, you are setting yourself and them up for disappointment and failure. And by doing so you are part of the problem. So even though you are trying to figure out why they are not listening to your advice, perhaps you too can benefit from some of these tips to recognize where you need to do some work as well. Because as an influencer and someone with perceived power, you have a responsibility to your colleagues, students and community to be a positive influence and wield your power wisely. 

If you found this blog post helpful, you may be interested in these other posts on blog.r3ciprocity.com: 

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