New Directions

How to Deal With (and Avoid Giving) Unsolicited Advice

Advice

If I were pressed to list three of my least favorite things, that list might look something like this:

  1. Direct sales parties
  2. Large, noisy crowds
  3. Unsolicited advice

That third item has become a bigger issue with the development of social media. It’s virtually impossible to post anything and not get some kind of advice you didn’t ask for.

Me, on Facebook (or Twitter): Cold Shower. Great way to start the day.

Unsolicted Advice: Start draining your water heater once a month to flush out the sediment. That helps the heating elements last longer.

Did I ask for advice on how better to maintain my water heater? No. I simply observed that I had started my day with a cold shower. Did the responder ask whether I regularly flush my water heater? No. They simply presumed that I needed to take a particular course of action.

That’s the problem with unsolicited advice: most of the time, it relies on presumptions. And, much of the time, those presumptions are inaccurate.

Unsolicited advice knows no bounds. You’ve probably received it with regard to parenting (Let him run! Boys need to be boys!), fashion (No self-respecting woman over 50 should be wearing short skirts), or your career (You shouldn’t put success at work above time with your family.) Most of the time, it’s not meant unkindly. It’s presented as a helpful suggestion. 

So what’s the difference between sharing information and offering unsolicited advice? Think of it this way: if I go to a store in search of a specific item, the person who points me in the right direction is helping me do something I want to do. If, however, a salesperson points me toward a different item, they’re presuming to know something: what I really need, what I want, how I live my life. If they’re wrong, then all they’ve done is annoy me (at best) or insult me (at worst).

In the last year or so, I’ve made a concerted effort to stop offering unsolicited advice–on social media and in person. It’s been much harder than I expected, which gives me some idea of how often I did it before. (If you’ve been the recipient of my unwelcome meddling, I apologize.) I’ve tried to change my behavior by asking myself three important questions:

  1. Is this person asking a question or making a statement?
  2. Are they actually asking for help?
  3. Would it be appropriate to ask if they want help? (If I don’t know the person well enough to ask that question, I certainly don’t know them well enough to offer advice.)

As I said, taking myself out of the advice-giving business has been a constant effort. It’s more reflexive than most of us realize. The bigger challenge, though, is responding politely to the advice I receive from people I care about–people who, I know, are just trying to help, whether or not they know me well enough to actually be helpful.

I’m often encouraged to think about people’s motivations when I complain about their advice. The problem with that is, there’s no way for me to know someone else’s motivation for doing anything. So these are a few of the strategies I’ve adopted for responding to unsolicited advice, when I receive it.

Accept and abandon

This is the simplest approach. I say “Thanks, I might try that,” or “Hm, I’ll have to think about that.” Then I forget all about it.

Decline and abandon

This one is trickier because it involves making clear the fact that I won’t be accepting a particular suggestion. Sometimes, though, that’s necessary. When my son was younger, for instance, I received all manner of advice about ways to address ADHD without traditional medications. I had no intention of taking medical advice from armchair physicians, so my usual response was something like “Meds have worked well for us so far. We’re sticking with them.” Then, once again, I’d forget all about it.

Turn it into a joke

I was in my early 20’s when my aunt advised me to rethink my eating habits. Actually, what she said was “You don’t want to be eating like that until you get your man.”

This was an aunt I didn’t see very often–she was in town for a visit with my dad–so I knew her advice (while unwelcome and, frankly, offensive) wasn’t something I’d have to deal with regularly. I also knew I had to be polite, in spite of the fact that she’d crossed a line.

“Any man who wants to marry me will have to love a woman who likes to eat,” I said. She laughed, and that was that.

Shut it down

Sometimes, people don’t take the hint. They offer advice–you accept and abandon. They offer the same advice again–you decline and abandon. They presume to know what you should be doing, and they won’t stop until you follow their directions.

Unless you’re comfortable with the idea that you might be ending a relationship, shutting them down is a bad idea. But when I’ve come to that point, I’ll say something like “You’ve suggested that many times. We obviously don’t agree on how I should handle this, so how about we just let it go.”

An even stronger approach would be to say outright “I’m not going to do that.” In either case, you risk hurt feelings–but you also make it impossible for anyone to miss the point.

 

As you’ve been reading this, you might have thought I can’t believe she’s giving advice about how to avoid giving advice. I write this blog assuming those who want the information I’m putting out there will come here to read it. Those who don’t will go somewhere else.

I don’t do high-pressure email campaigns. I don’t even make a big effort to attract subscribers. In the end, I only know what works for me. And when you’re interested in hearing about that, you know where to find me.

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