Have you ever been told… “You could lose a few pounds,” or “you should really get a new haircut,” or maybe “if you changed X about yourself, you would get a different outcome”?
I don’t know about you, but I have been the receiver of my fair share of unsolicited advice in my lifetime. I can still remember some “suggestions” shared decades ago, that pierced my heart. I wish I hadn’t taken them so personally.
On the other hand, maybe you have crossed the line and shared advice when your opinion was not requested. I know that I have from time to time. The results were mixed. There were some occasions when it was received well, and others where it damaged the relationship.
Unsolicited advice can have very damaging effects on relationships and lead to division, drama and hurt feelings.
In my professional role as a school counselor, I have experienced great success by avoiding advice giving altogether. When someone shares a personal struggle, I respond with something like; “That stinks! I am so sorry for you. How can I support you?” This approach creates an open environment for clients to share and work through their struggles, but it also encourages independence.
Unfortunately, our personal lives are not as simple. For one, a reciprocal relationship like a friendship or a marriage, involves give and take and mutually sharing and supporting one another. Advice is constantly being solicited and/or given for the little and big things.
Personal relationships are complex because it’s okay to have some level of dependence on your friends and family, unlike your colleagues and clients.
With my friends and family, I can’t just stop at “That stinks.” and move on. It’s almost like saying “That’s too bad,” or “That’s your problem.” If I don’t do or say anything more, I will probably be perceived as cold or uncaring. But, then there is the risk that my advice may be taken the wrong way.
So, what are some ground rules for advice giving in our close relationships?
Solicited advice, for the little things, seems like fare game to me. For example, another mom asks me what I think about an enrichment program or I ask someone about the best local dentist. But for the big problems, I try to avoid giving advice, even if it is requested.
Then what about unsolicited advice? Is it ever okay?
You have probably been there… someone is sharing about a personal problem or just a parenting challenge…and you are chomping at the bit to jump in and share your knowledge or experience.
I have been on both ends of the stick. I have had situations where I was given unsolicited advice and it hurt me. There have been times when I was given unrequested advice and it motivated me to make positive changes in my life.
A few weeks ago, I was at my son’s swim lesson, and he was experiencing a lot of anxiety. The mother of another child in his class started making suggestions like…I should bribe my son with some kind of prize if he participates in the class. I was surprised how much her unsolicited input hurt me. I interpreted her comments to mean that I don’t know what I am doing and she does.
My gut was telling me there was something more going on with my son. And as it turned out, he was evaluated by a physical therapist, who identified a lack of strength in his legs and some absent reflexes in his feet. This was contributing to his comfort level in the pool. All the prizes in the world would not have corrected this problem.
The comments made by the other parent set our relationship on the wrong foot.
In retrospect, I know the other parent intended well, but because she didn’t know me, and I didn’t ask, I took it personally and felt defensive.
And it turns outs my reaction is pretty typical.
Interestingly, research has shown us that whenever someone tells us what to do and how to do it, we respond with a defensive defiance because we want to maximize our personal freedom and decision making.
People don’t want to be told what to do. Even if your thoughts are in their best interest.
So, I started to think… Is there a way to share unsolicited advice without turning people off or appearing preachy?
I think there are some ways to be indirect about it. Tact is key to being received well. Here are my suggestions.
Think about your audience-close friends vs. acquaintances
When a close friend suggested that I exercise to increase my energy level, I didn’t think twice. I gave it a try and haven’t looked back. But had it been said by someone I didn’t know as well, I probably would have been offended.
It depends on the level of the problem
Making suggestions about innocuous things like the best pizza place in town, or favorite local playground are fine, in my opinion. But suggesting that someone lose some weight or take their kid for therapy can be damaging to relationships.
If you really want to encourage behavior change in those around you, model the behavior that you want and keep your advice-giving instincts in check. Let’s go back to my experience in the swim lesson. If the other parent’s child got upset during the class, she could do some breathing exercises, or say some positive affirmations to her kid. This would indirectly make me more likely to try the same strategy.
Share a personal experience
Talking about yourself and what worked for you is a great and indirect way to get your point across. If they are interested in finding out more, they can always ask. But it is much less pushy.
If you want to give unsolicited advice, politely ask permission
If you are unsure if someone wants advice, say something like, “Are you looking for ideas or do you just want to vent?”
Building trust in personal relationships can be tricky. But I think if your intentions are to be helpful and you are thoughtful in your approach, it is possible to give advice without damaging your relationships. What methods do you have for giving advice in a considerate way? I’d love to hear more options!