Giving and receiving unsolicited advice

Few things piss me off more than when people dish out unsolicited advice, especially without bothering to fully understand the situation. They may claim to understand, but from the content of their comment, it’s clear that they don’t. A person who truly understood wouldn’t say such things.

Now I know that some people do it out of caring and a desire to help, so my reply is still polite and I try my best to sound appreciative, but in reality, I’m angry. That reaction is natural, of course.

When you give unsolicited advice people often feel1:

  • Spoken down to or belittled
  • That you didn’t listen to them
  • Disconnected from you
  • That you don’t care how they feel
  • That you haven’t understood their experience
  • Irritated by your arrogance
  • Disrespected

And why wouldn’t the one on the receiving end feel that way? Joshua Spodek phrases it quite well:

when we give advice we imply we know the other person’s life better than they do. We appear to impose our values on them. We likely neglect that the other person is already doing something to improve their lives.

I write on my blog to let things out, and if I make a post public, it’s because I’m looking for emotional support. If I want advice, I will clearly state it.

If you really can’t resist the urge to give advice, please keep in mind that there are better ways to approach it than others.

First of all, ask if the person actually wants advice. If they don’t, then don’t give it. They’re not going to follow it, and your act of giving it will have caused more harm to the relationship than good.

So now, if you don’t want to read my suggestions, you have the choice to click the back button on your browser. (This list is not directed at anyone in particular, so it is not the same as when someone leaves a comment with advice directed at something I wrote in one of my posts.) Everything that I have written below was based on a combination of the training I received to become a crisis counselor, various online articles on the topic, and my reactions to unsolicited advice.

1. Phrasing does matter
Telling a person what to do or what you think is right can come across as patronizing. Phrasing a suggestion in the form of a question gives the person a sense that they still have control. For example, saying “Have you thought of doing…?” is less likely to make a person feel guilty or become defensive than saying, “Have you done…?” or “Maybe you should do….”

2. Simply stating your opinion won’t convince anybody to think the way you do, unless they already worship you. If you talk about your beliefs or personal thoughts on the topic, you most likely will come across as having a superior attitude, which can create more distance between the two of you.

If you absolutely must share your opinion on the issue, first try to think of it from the other person’s point of view. Otherwise, they will most likely end up thinking, “Well, that’s you. Not me… and you’re being pretentious.” (For instance, if you hear they’re agonizing over a certain thing that you happen to be indifferent to, saying “I personally don’t let this kind of thing bother me” is not helpful, because they have made it known that they care about it. It also does not tell them how they can become like you and not let it bother them.)

However, if you really think mentioning your personal belief will be helpful, you can make it into a question, even by simply adding “Do you think it could work for you?” at the end. But be prepared to answer “how?” Otherwise, it’ll appear that you’re not really trying to help, and that you really don’t understand where the other person is coming from. (Of course you can’t understand everyone, since people have different experiences that make them who they are.)

3. Which of the two people do you think truly understands?
Person A: I understand, I really do, but….
Person B: I’ve been through something like this before, and it was very (tough/stressful/painful/scary/etc.) for me. I have found it helpful to….

If you really can’t relate, then please don’t claim to, because it’s obvious when you don’t understand. However, you can still empathize.

4. Saying “It’s that simple” sounds like you’re talking down to the person you’re giving “advice” to.

5. You can use what they’ve written about (or told you) as evidence, instead of just diving into “Doing this might help.” For example, “Given that you have done/tried ______ before, maybe you could try ______?” Mentioning what they have done or what you know about their tendencies shows that you’re actually trying to understand their situation, and that you’ve acknowledged their previous efforts. Going straight to “Doing _____ might help” only reveals how little you know about the person.

6. It’ll actually be more helpful to the person if you brainstorm with them. Ask prompts that will help them come up with their own solution. They are more likely to be open to it and grateful for your assistance, than having you impose your thoughts on them. For all you know, they might be able to come up with a better idea than either of you could have done alone.

7. Avoid using words like should, need to, ought to, etc. They will most likely be met with resistance. My first thought upon hearing those words are, Who are you to tell me what to do with my life?

How do you react when you receive unsolicited advice on your blog? What are some other suggestions that you have for giving advice in a way that will actually help?

Sources and further reading

Original post 1/25/2013.


5 thoughts on “Giving and receiving unsolicited advice

  1. I rarely get any advice on my blogs and I appreciate it when I do. Most of the people who read my blog from Xanga are good at helping me think things through when they do give advice. I don’t think I have anything to add. This was really well written.

  2. It doesn’t bother me as I think, in general, people are trying to help. But I understand your point of view. When I get a comment where I think they are doing any of the things mentioned above, I tend to to make comments back that make that clear. However, like I said, I think most are trying to help and I appreciate that–Of course, it’s all in the wording too. I enjoyed your post and it will definitely make me think b/4 giving any kind of advice in the future b/c I don’t want to offend anyone.

  3. Unsolicited advice can be annoying, but there’s always a chance that one might receive a nugget of useful and helpful wisdom that could be just the thing that was needed.

    Since one is under no obligation to follow any advice given, I take them all with a grain of salt…looking for those few genuine pearls.

  4. I sometimes get a criticism. Usually, I adjust because usually they are construction or correct. I have had some crackpot comments. It hasn’t happened here yet (being here a little more than 3 months). You really did a great job with this topic.
    How do you feel about getting praise?
    I didn’t read your blogs before — a former xangan and I see other xangans I knew commented.
    – Eric

    • Thanks Eric. I have gotten a few comments in which the suggestions were useful, though I have also gotten several (mostly from the same person) that had characteristics of the “don’ts” in this post.

      Although I figured out a few years ago that if I didn’t let praise from others raise me up, then I also won’t be affected by criticism, I still feel good when I receive praise.

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