How To Do Life

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In Praise of Unsolicited Advice

The case for giving unasked-for advice

You see a rattlesnake slithering toward a stranger. You say, “Watch out” and the person responds, “I didn’t ask for your advice.” Absurd.

You see an obese stranger inhaling a triple bacon cheeseburger. You say, “You don’t need that.” The person responds, “Mind your own business.” Understandable.

Those are polar opposite examples of unsolicited advice: one completely justifiable, the other clearly not. Here’s an example in the murky middle that actually occurred today. I had noticed that John Perry, co-host of the radio program that precedes mine, Philosophy Talk, had been slipping in a number of comments on aging. I enjoyed his previous book, The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging, and Postponing. So as he was leaving the studio as I was entering, I said, “Hey John, how about writing a book on aging using that same playful tone you used in your book on procrastination?” He responded with what is probably his polite Midwestern way of saying no: “A book on aging, huh?” and he walked on. Even though he probably was rejecting the idea, there’s some chance I planted a seed, which just might benefit him and readers. Worst case, he mildly resented the unsolicited advice. I feel the risk-reward ratio was good.

In said murky middle ground, how do you decide whether to offer unasked-for advice?  You might consider these factors:

  • How likely the person is to appreciate and use the input. Some people generally welcome unsolicited advice as an act of caring. The recipient also recognizes s/he not forced to accept the advice—s/he alone decides. Yet other people take great offense at unasked-for input. I recall suggesting a career direction to a relative and she said something like, “I don’t need your advice. Don’t you realize it denies me my agency. I can solve my own problems. You’re being sexist and paternalistic.” When I said, “But you just said you’re trying to figure out what career to pursue,” she responded, “I just want to be heard. It doesn’t mean I need your advice.”
  • How sure you’re correct. If, for example, I feel a career counseling client should consider a particular career but it’s not a strong feeling, I’ll often hold off. A person can take only so much unwanted advice even if s/he’s paying me. I might not want to use a chit on that. 
  • The severity of the need. Of course, give unsolicited advice if not giving it would result in mayhem. But if, for example, you notice a tiny split in a shirt’s seam, it may not be worth the risk of being perceived as intrusive and a fault-finder.
  • Whether the person already knows it. As in the triple bacon cheeseburger example, the person didn't need to be told s/he didn't need it.

Of course, when offering unasked-for advice, it’s usually wise to soften it—saying you’re unsure whether you’re right, that, of course, the recipient decides whether to accept it, and phrasing it as a question. For example, “Of course, you may be considering other factors I’m not aware of but, because you’re so social, are you sure that pursuing an accounting degree is the wisest path?”  

Should we give more unsolicited advice?

Conventional wisdom is that we shouldn't give unsolicited advice. But it would seem that humankind would, net, benefit more if we gave and were more open to receiving it. As long as the intent is benevolent, unsolicited input is quite a kind act: the person is offering help even though that risks getting attacked. I’ll try to remember that when you criticize this article.

Wikipedia’s profile of Marty Nemko tells you more than necessary.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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