Unsolicited advice implicitly says, “I’m offering you a solution because you’re incapable of coming up with a good one on your own.”
Yes, it’s very difficult to watch loved ones make a mistake. Often, we rush in with both guns blazing, trying to save a person from what we perceive as an error in judgment. It’s especially difficult for those of us who have a long history of advice giving. It seems like there is an unstated moral imperative that we use the wisdom we’ve learned from our own mistakes to save others from their mistakes.
And that’s a problem. When we offer others unsolicited advice, we are not only implying they are incapable of making good decisions for themselves but also depriving them of an opportunity for personal growth. The hidden power of mistakes is that they are the very ore from which wisdom is produced. It is the alchemy of turning the base metals of error into something precious—and lasting.
Before offering unsolicited advice, we may want to ask ourselves, “Would I really want to deprive another of what created my own wisdom? And can I really be confident that what I believe is right is also right for another person?”
Consider this as well. When we offer unsolicited advice, two things may result: shame and blame. People may feel shame because unsolicited advice is inherently saying that the other person’s decision making skills are poor. Also, unsolicited advice can harm a relationship because when someone takes your advice and things turn out badly, who are they going to blame?
For those of us who are ambivalent about unsolicited advice, we often rationalize our decision to give it by combining it with one of our “pearls of wisdom.” However, wisdom is contextual and, therefore, subjective because it is based on our own limited interactions with life. Even though wisdom feels like ultimate truth, it really conforms to a formula: my knowledge + my experience = my wisdom. Not anyone else’s.
So what’s the alternative? After all, we want to help those we care about.
Spiritual author and self-help guru Byron Katie says that whenever she is asked for advice, she responds: “I have no idea what you should do. I can only share what worked for me. Are you interested in hearing that?”
The honesty and humility inherent in Katie’s response invites others to consider our experience as a possible solution without the pitfalls of unsolicited advice.
Another useful technique in avoiding unsolicited advice comes from my own work with the ManKind Project, an international group of men committed to developing greater emotional intelligence (EQ). I have learned that when someone has given me the honor of listening to his or her issue, I briefly pause to ask, “Do you want me to just listen or to listen and help you come up with solutions?”
As a former “advice provider,” I have been seduced by my desire to solve other people’s problems. It’s easy to assume that when sharing a difficult issue with us, people want our advice. Men are especially prone to the temptation to immediately fix the person or situation. Although we have heard women say from the advent of language that they “just want to be listened to,” we find it extremely difficult to avoid jumping in to solve the problem.
As an enlightened male, Buddhist monk and Nobel Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh, says that we listen to others with compassion rather than judgment in order to relieve another’s suffering. We listen with only one purpose: to allow that person to “empty his heart.” And we remember that we “are helping that person to suffer less even if what he is saying is full of misperceptions or bitterness.”
Then what about the misperceptions? He suggests that we set aside another time to address those—if, in fact, that is what the person is seeking from us.
There is also great wisdom to be found on the advice frontier from support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon. Members are taught to share their “experience, strength, and hope” rather than their advice when working with others who are still suffering. Addiction to our own negative thinking has a way of making us all members of the “still suffering” whether we consider ourselves addicts or not. Key to their approach is valuing and respecting other people, recognizing that “we are all equals, but we are not the same” (Al-Anon’s Twelves Steps & Twelve Tradition).
When operating from the belief that others are equal but not the same as us, we are less likely to impose our advice on them.
But habits are often difficult to break. And advice giving is no different. To prevent us from slipping back into automatic advice mode, Katie suggests asking ourselves three-questions: “Am I in their business? Did they ask me for my advice? And, more importantly, can I take the advice I am offering and apply it to my life?”
A motif common to all the advice-busting techniques presented here is time. When feeling the urge to give unsolicited advice, pause and take a moment to consider its pitfalls. That momentary “time out” is all you need to apply the technique that will help bring about the greatest good for each person —friend, family, or colleague—who has honored you by confiding in you.
In sharing this blog with you, I hope I haven’t violated my own intentions. It seems that it’s an inescapable irony that in writing about unsolicited advice that I have given it. But it is my hope that by joining me in this article, that you have implicitly given me permission to share these insights and techniques regarding uninvited advice. You may find that as you become more sensitive and skillful in helping those who have confided in you, that they may return the favor.