What I’ve learned, mainly from running groups, is that people sometimes find advice helpful, and sometimes they find it not-so-nice. So, based on what I think I’ve learned about advice, herein is my two cents on the matter, given with the intention of being helpful and educational. Please keep in mind that you technically “asked” for this advice by opening this post. (You will understand why I state this after you’ve finished reading.)
What is Advice?
Because advice can be a two edged sword, most of what I say about advice is going to have two views—including my definition of advice.
On the one hand, advice can be seen as a kindhearted sharing of wisdom gained by someone who has experienced a similar situation and has handled it well or at least survived it intact.
On the other hand, advice and opinions can also be experienced as invalidating or patronizing. That’s partly because they have limited or no value from one person to the next due to no two situations being exactly the same and no two people having the same goals, values, needs, and capabilities within those situations. In other words, what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. What seems to work for me is based on the experiences I’ve had. The strategies I use to meet challenges are based on the fulfillment of my needs and priorities. Thus, those strategies that give me satisfying results may really feel like the very best answer to me, and I therefore might want to share them eagerly with others with the assumption that my strategies are the best for everyone else as well.
But, there is no way of knowing whether my answer is actually the best for me or anyone else. Given two options that both work toward my benefit, one may work better than the other under specific circumstances. And yet, the latter may work better in another situation. So, unless I’ve tried all options in every type of situation, which is impossible, I can’t know what the best answer is. Still, I have a pretty good working hypothesis about what generally works for me, and others can decide what value that holds for them.
Why Do We Give Advice?
In my experience, most advice is given to help another who is in need or in a rough spot. That’s a really good thing that we do for each other. That speaks to the general level of compassion that we have for one another and how we strive to connect with each other. And it’s reasonable to think, “This person is telling me about this problem because they need or want me to tell them what to do.” We may easily assume that others are asking for advice just by telling us their concerns, and we respond accordingly because we genuinely want to help.
Yet, there are also times that advice-giving is intended to ease our own internal tension stirred up by hearing another’s dilemma. Because of our innate tendency to empathize, we may start to feel what others feel when they describe the hard situations they are in. Because we care about the people we keep around us, we understandably start to worry about the well-being of a friend or loved one who is sharing a hardship with us. That worry can make it challenging to listen without acting on an internal impulse to fix the situation. And in our minds, we tend to think we know how to fix the situation. We shuffle through our memory banks to recall what we did in a similar situation and naturally share that triumph.
Generally, the intention is that the other person will use the same fix, and thus our shared stress will be relieved. However, this tactic may cause more tension than relief no matter how well-meaning it is. Consider the times in your life where you’ve shared a concern and received someone else’s success story in return. How did you take that in, and what are other ways to interpret that?
So, Why Is Advice Sometimes Received and Sometimes Rejected?
If I am in a tight spot and I am telling someone about that spot, I may or may not want advice. There are times when I really need someone to tell me what to do as soon as possible. And, there are times when I know in my heart or my gut what I need to do, but I need someone to believe in me and encourage me to do what I know is right for me. And then there are times when I am not ready for an answer because I need someone to just listen so that I can sort out all of my complicated and nuanced feelings as well as my options.
Advice tends to be well-received when the receiver really wants it, and the way we know when someone really wants advice is when they ask for it. Advice is also better received once someone has been heard completely without interruption and without “me-too’s.” Advice is heard positively when someone feels validated: “I need to know that you really get all of what I’m saying before I can hear what you have to say about it.”
It also helps when the person asking for an opinion perceives that the advisor has some useful knowledge without being a know-it-all. Advice tempered with an understanding, “for-whatever-it’s-worth” approach tends to be received better than rigid, matter-of-fact, or harsh statements of supposed absolute truth.
Advice tends to be rejected when someone hears an (unintended) message such as:
- “I know more than you.”
- “I am here to teach you what you obviously have not learned.”
- “You need to hear this because there is something wrong with you.”
- “Your feelings are irrelevant; this is absolutely what’s right regardless of how it feels.”
- “Your feelings are silly, and if you just see it my way, you’ll be ok.”
- “This is an easy fix; stop fretting.”
- “I know, I know. Let me tell you about my”
- “That’s nothing compared to what I’ve been through.”
- “Oh, you can’t handle that? Let me tell you about how wonderful I am.”
- You get the idea…
Then, When Should I Give Advice or Not?
Ideally, we would all wait until advice is explicitly requested and after we’ve checked in with our own feelings, needs, and intentions in the moment. We would all listen carefully and ask questions stemming from curiosity and compassion before giving our opinions or talk about our own concerns. We would recognize that what we have to offer comes from our own experiences/experiments and that those may lead to different results in other lives, cultures, and environments.
Realistically, just keeping some of these concepts in mind can help us be more effective without aiming for perfection. If we are aware when we are giving advice that it may or may not be desired, we can then work with what we get back from the receiver to adjust course. If it isn’t received well, we can pull back and ask how the advice-giving felt and what the other person really needs from us. If it is received well, then it is hopefully what was needed (not just expected) and helpful.
It’s also very human to have worries about another, and it’s ok to express that when you own it and state it as caring. Sometimes what we hear from others we can’t take. It may be enough that you care without hearing all the details.
One idea is to consider a hug before saying anything—for whatever that’s worth to you in the context of your relationships.