To Give Advice . . . or Not!
Giving advice is a tricky proposition. Given for the right reasons under the right circumstances, advice is very beneficial and can help someone to solve a problem. Good advice is a tremendous aid to getting unstuck. It allows us to gain knowledge we don't have from someone who's in the know. It can widen our view of a problem and lift us out of tunnel vision. It can broaden our perspective, and conversely help us narrow in on the real issues to address. Advice can be wonderful!
Unfortunately, advice can also feel like a put-down, a one-up, a criticism, or a personal affront. Given for the wrong reason or under the wrong circumstances, advice is a negative experience for the receiver, and does not help to solve a problem. It can make things worse instead of better.
How Do I Know When to Dive In?
To avoid giving advice in the wrong way, and to make sure that the experience is positive and helpful, there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind.
Were you asked?
Were you asked for advice or did you just decide to give it? It's not always wrong to offer advice that wasn't requested, but most times it is received more readily if requested. The rule of thumb here is don't offer if not asked. This is especially true if the nature of the advice or subject matter has an emotional component to it. A good example would be relationship advice. Wait to be asked for advice that has a strong personal component. That said, simple advice that is offered when someone is struggling with a more non-emotional problem is more likely to be received well. One of my clients was having problem with an outlet in their bathroom and I offered the advice to look around in the house for all of the outlets with the red switch in it and make sure they were all pushed in. She found one in her garage and Voila! Her outlet worked again. She didn't ask for that advice, but there was no problem in her receiving it because it had no personal component to it. On the other hand, if a friend comes to me to discuss a problem with a spouse, I am very careful to listen actively, but not supply advice unless asked. Even then I tread lightly.
What's your motive?
This one is really important. Often we give advice because we are enthusiastic about showing what we know about a particular subject. That's fine, again if the advice was requested and what we have to say will be helpful. It's not fine if the motive is show off or boost our egos. That's a really bad reason to give advice and almost always backfires. Such advice can sound presumptuous, critical, condescending or patronizing. You may get a silent response or a defensive one. It is really important to make sure that your motive for giving advice is to help; never to show off.
Are you manipulating?
This is a different kind of motive and is generally more calculated. You give advice because you want to convince someone of your point of view. It's not wrong to voice your point of view as long as you are up front about it and couch it within terms such as "this is my opinion." It is wrong to take advantage of someone's vulnerability about an issue to drive home your own agenda. If you're selling something, then make it clear that that is what you are doing. Don't hide it under the guise of giving advice.
What's their motive?
This is a trickier one. Does the person asking really want a solution? It may be that they just want to vent or be heard. It may also be that they've already made a decision and they want your confirmation. People come into marriage counseling sometimes having already decided to get a divorce. They want my advice on whether they should stay together or not. What they really want is to be told it's okay to go ahead with the divorce. You can't always discern what the motive is, but generally you can get a good feel for that as soon as you venture out with a bit of advice. The reaction will tell you if they really wanted it or not, or what it is they're seeking from you. In those cases, I usually am up front with my response. I'll say "It looks like you really just want me to listen and understand your point of view. I can do that." Or in the case of the couple I just mentioned, I'll say "It looks like you've already made a decision. Is that right?" If I'm not sure, I might just ask, "I'd be happy to give you advice, but I want to be sure you'd like to hear it and that it will be helpful to you." People appreciate that kind of candor. It gives them a moment to think, "Do I really want to hear this?", and it also gives them an out if they want it.
What's the level of receptivity?
This is similar to the one above. The question is, does the person really want to receive the advice, and given what you have to say, do you think they will receive it well and make use of it? If not, it is good to go slowly. Ask if they really would like to hear what you have to say. Is it going to come off as criticism? Is it going to hurt their feelings? Is this someone you know well enough to give this kind of advice? The basis and level of closeness in a relationship is a consideration. I am much more likely to give personal advice to a family member than to a work colleague I don't know all that well. My family member won't feel exposed by the advice because we already know and trust each other. My work colleague might feel overly exposed and want to retreat. Another way of assessing this is to ask, does the subject matter match the type of relationship we have? A work colleague might easily take in business advice, but not relationship advice. They will ultimately see the advice as invasive even though that was not the intent.
Here's a couple of quick guidelines to keep in mind:
- The purpose of advice should always be to help. No other purpose is acceptable.
- Confrontational advice rarely goes over well. Be respectful and pay attention to the other person's feelings as you go. Gauge your comments based on their reactions.
- Really empathize. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine hearing your advice. Will it help?
- If you get a defensive response of any kind, you will know that either your delivery is faulty or the level of receptivity is low. Stop the advice and acknowledge that you have said something to make the other person feel defensive. Apologize and move away from giving advice at this point.
- Your delivery should be kind.
- If you have other resources that could be helpful to solve a problem, by all means give that information. Don't hog the stage!
- Keep your own ego in check.