• David Strittmatter

Never give unsolicited advice & what to do instead

Never give advice unless asked.

Summary:

  • Most people dislike being provided with unwanted solutions

  • People often just want to be heard and understood, they want to process and feel supported

  • People don’t want to be fixed, they want to be known


Practical advice:

  • Listen carefully and empathically

  • Ask: What would help you most in this situation?

  • Before presenting to them your solution, assure that they are open to it


Dear friend,


Most likely, you’ve already faced the following situation: You talked to a friend and complained about someone/something (your parents, boss, colleagues, friends, weather, delayed busses, etc). But instead of receiving suggestions on how to cope with this issue, you just wanted to vent and someone who listens and cares. Your friend, though, was more about finding and suggesting solutions to your problem, providing unsolicited advice.


I’ve already experienced this situation numerous times, though, as the problem-solving friend. Until I realized what I was doing to my friends, I had always thought I was helping, and I couldn’t understand why most people whom I advised felt worse than before they talked to me.


In today’s article, I want to share with you substantive reasons to never give unsolicited advice and provide you with an alternative approach to share your advice and provide help.


We don’t want to be advised


Via an internet poll, researchers asked people whether they liked receiving unsolicited advice. The three answers were 1) no 2) yes and 3) only if the right person gives it.

Out of approximately a thousand people, only 6% said yes and 38% answered only if the right person gives it.


From a methodological perspective, this study might not be the best. The results, however, paint a crystal clear picture: Most people dislike being provided with unwanted solutions.


What we want instead


Have you ever asked yourself why people dump their problems on others in the first place? Why your partner complains about his/her coworker? Your colleague about the difficulty of losing weight? Your friend about his/her antisocial flatmate?


Most often, people just want to be heard and understood, they want to process and feel supported, they don’t want to be told what to do. When they share a small, undesirable part of their life with you, it’s not so that you can ‘fix’ it, it’s so that you can stand in the space with them and witness it. Usually, they even know what to do and how they can solve the problem by themselves. They might just not have the energy and power to do it. People don’t want to be fixed, they want to be known.


How a well-meant act can make the situation worse


When my friends expressed their concerns to me, I took the initiative and voluntarily started counseling them on their problem, even though they never asked me for my guidance. And why?

  • I wanted to be helpful

  • I was excited about a solution and wanted to share it

  • I thought I had the right answers

  • and that I did them a favor

However...


Responding to people who share their troubles by telling them how to solve their problems puts us in a superior role. It presents us as the person with the higher rank in the interaction and lowers the complainant into a subordinate role. They hear you saying: "I think you’re inadequate and incompetent, and you require my knowledge and wisdom to make progress here".


As a result, they feel like they are too inept to get their life on track and make decisions about how to live their lives. And instead of being supported, they have the burden of managing feedback they never asked for.


Stop fixing, start listening


Giving advice is natural to us as human beings. It’s an instinct to want to give advice. It feels good and like the right thing to do. Moreover, generally, there’s nothing wrong with advising your friends. Yet, 90% of the time, giving unsolicited solutions and recommendations makes the situation worse, leading to the contrary outcome.


I apply the following framework to provide the best support for friends and make the most out of the situation:


1) Listen carefully and empathically


Often, just listening is enough. Additionally, it's the only way to find out what your friend, colleague, partner, etc. needs at the very moment.


I've already written an article on how to listen right. To put it in a nutshell, don't interrupt the other person, listen attentively (eye contact, open mimic, etc), ask good questions, state impressions ("That must have been really difficult"), and relate ("That reminds me of the struggle I had last week").


Observe and notice how the complainant reacts. You will obtain a feeling of whether the person is about venting and just dumping his/her frustration or rather searching for advice.


2) It's about them, not you


If the well-being of the complainant is your main interest, you cannot simply force your solution on him/her, rather, you need to seek what s/he needs.


That's actually pretty easy: Ask, what would help you most in this situation? Make your conversation partners clear that you want to help them.


Most of the time you’ll hear responses like:

  • Just you listening is enough.

  • Honestly, I don’t know, but it feels good to have someone to talk to about it.

  • Your support means the world to me.

These responses are what I described in the beginning: People just want to be heard and understood, they want to process and feel supported, and they don’t want to be told what to do. Providing unsolicited advice in these situations will make the person feel worse. Hence, you have to prevent yourself from providing solutions and trying to fix the problem. Rather, you should continue to listen carefully and empathically. The other person will be unbelievably thankful afterward.


In a few cases, though, they give you the uncommon response and show openness to or even ask for advice/help.


Before presenting to them my solution, I make sure that they are open to it and say something like:

  • I have some ideas about what might be helpful. Would you be interested in hearing them?

  • Are you open to suggestions?

  • Would it be most helpful for me to give you some advice or for me to listen?

  • I’ve been through something similar. Can I tell you about what worked for me?

They'll appreciate you've let them maintain choice in the conversation, which contributes to their own sense of power.


What's more, be empathetic and emotionally supportive of whether or not they accept your offer for advice. Simply being there, validating them, cheering them on, giving them virtually hugs means more than an instruction manual.


Finally, if you're in doubt, just listen.

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