The Human Equation

Serial killers, self-reliance, and everything in between

Hey, Dear Abbies!: Three Things to Consider Before You Give Advice

Want advice? You probably don't.

Most of us love giving advice.  It makes us feel important.  It gives us a chance to tell the other person what we *really* think. 

As a result, when someone actually asks for our opinion, it’s easy to launch into a diatribe about what the other person should do and how they should do it. (I should know; I’ve fallen into this trap more times than I can remember.)  I also know how annoying it is when the advice seeker, in response to our taking the time and investing the energy into trying to help, either a) gets defensive and argues back, or b) completely ignores the advice we’ve given (and does the exact opposite).  Which, of course, happens all the time.

Why are You Asking Me if You Don’t Want to Know?

So why does our best friend, sister or coworker ask us for our advice if she doesn’t want it?  She does want somethingto feel better.  She’s looking to you for validation, comfort, approval, or clarity.  However, it’s hard to ask for these things, and she probably doesn’t even realize what she’s asking for until she doesn’t get it (i.e., you tell her what she doesn’t want to hear) and – presto – suddenly you’re in the dog house.

In fact, nine times out of ten, people are just looking for confirmation of what they’ve already made up their minds to do.  Even if they really are sitting on the fence and trying to decide whether to climb over or get back down, the odds are they’re going to go back to worrying about what to do after you’ve finished talking.

Advice about Giving Advice

First of all, repeat after me: “I will not give unsolicited advice.  I will hold my tongue, bite the inside of my cheek and do whatever else is necessary to keep my mouth shut.”  As well-intentioned as it may be, giving unasked-for advice is as risky as Russian roulette; you never know when it’s going to blow up in your face.     

But what if your best friend asks you for advice and, without your wisdom and guidance, she’s about to make the biggest mistake of her life?  Before you answer, here are three steps to get you in the right frame of mind before you open your mouth. 

1.  Channel your inner Socrates.  Before you give her your opinion, ask her a series of questions.  What is she thinking?  What are her concerns?  What options is she considering?  What are the pros and cons?  When you ask someone what steps they can take to resolve their problem, it helps him or her find their own solution and come up with a plan s/he can’t argue with – because it’s their own.

2.  Base your opinion on evidence she’s provided.  You’ve called me crying five times this week after you and Joe had a fight.  You’ve told me how unhappy you were the last time you took a job that required litigation. That’s it; now zip it up and listen.  

3. Let go of the outcome.  Reassure your friend that you’ll be there for her no matter what she decides.  If she makes a bad decision, let it go.  Trying to rescue her would just be offering unsolicited advice and will likely do your relationship more harm than good.

The Bottom Line

Erica Jong once said, “Advice is what we ask for when we know the answer but wish we didn’t.”  My advice?  Listen to her.

 

 

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

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