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Why Unsolicited Advice Can Ruin Relationships

...and the right way to respond when someone shares a problem with you.

Source: mavo/Shutterstock

Many times people who ask for advice don't really want it. And, perhaps surprisingly, unsolicited advice can harm a relationship rather than strengthen it. It is important to ascertain from the beginning of any such interaction whether someone is actually asking for direct help or simply for an attentive ear.

How can you respond when confronted with this dilemma by a friend or someone close to you?

Here are examples of the type of well-meaning responses that often "miss the boat" without a speaker even realizing it, as presented to me by psychotherapy clients.

  1. Linda: It's really expensive living in New York and I'm really worried about whether or not I can continue to survive here. I've got some important decisions to make.
    Friend: Why don't you just ask your father for money?

  2. Sal: I'm having trouble taking off my wedding ring even though my wife died over a year ago. It feels like a betrayal or an act of disloyalty to put it in a drawer after 25 years of marriage.
    Colleague: I don't think it's disloyal. I think it's time and you should remove it already.
  3. Adam: My girlfriend and I are having trouble getting along. I'm worried about whether or not we are going to be able to work things out.
    Sister: If it's that hard, I think you should end it and find someone else.

When these types of responses occur, often I hear that they are not welcomed by the recipients because their initial comments were not intended to be invitations for opinions or advice. These are examples of unsolicited advice, which may have the unintended effect of stressing a relationship.

There are a few things involved in exchanges like these: Many people immediately assume that when a friend or family member shares a difficult life situation, it is a request for help. This often leads to advice that is primarily reactive, not particularly thoughtful, and most important, unsolicited and possibly unwelcome. If the recipient of our help reacts with anything other than gratitude, we may feel unappreciated even though the advice was not what was really being sought.

Let's consider the above examples again:

  • Linda did not need her friend to suggest a solution. This was not someone she was particularly close to, which was probably why the friend did not know that Linda and her father had not spoken to each other in 15 years.
  • Sal shared his dilemma about his wedding ring to converse with a colleague about what he believed to be a difficult quandary. He told me that he was not interested in being told what to do.
  • Similarly, Adam was telling his sister about an upsetting struggle in his life and said that he was only seeking an opportunity to have a useful discussion with a close relative. He told me that his sister's surprising advice, which felt abrupt and thoughtless, instantly disqualified her as a future emotional resource.

What happens in these types of situations is that the listener instantly assumes that he or she is being asked for advice—and feels compelled to give it. We all understand that problems need to be solved and eliminated. It is often assumed that advice in the form of a spontaneous solution can only be helpful in order to relieve the sufferer of their trouble.

We can get very invested in the advice that we give and have difficulty understanding why the recipient does not accept and implement it. We don't like feeling passive or inactive when there appears to be an opportunity to be giving and helpful. For some people, their self-esteem seems to be on the line; if their advice is accepted—regardless of whether or not it was sought in the first place—they feel valued and important. If their advice is not seriously considered or not followed, they might feel rejected and devalued.

Many people acknowledge that when they share a dilemma or a struggle with a friend, they really just want to talk to someone who they feel cares about them and will listen to them. This seems more important than finding an immediate solution to their problem. People often find their own solutions when they have an opportunity to express their feelings in an atmosphere of acceptance, patience, tolerance, and support. Active and attentive silence may, at times, be more helpful than anything one person can say or do to help another.

When I am on the receiving end of an exchange with a family member, friend, or colleague who is sharing a problem of some kind, I assume my role as a psychotherapist. I listen attentively in the hope that doing so will be meaningful and supportive. Someone's sharing is often exactly that and nothing more. If not accompanied by such comments as, "What do you think I should do?" or "What would you do if you were me?" I assume this indicates that the speaker is primarily interested in my ear and less so my mouth. However, sometimes in those moments I might seek an invitation to share my thoughts. If, when I ask, "Would you like to hear my thoughts about your situation?" I receive a "yes," then I believe the welcome mat is out and my comments will be considered.

The points to be remembered here are:

  1. People do not necessarily want advice when they recount a dilemma.
  2. Attentive listening is often more therapeutic than any unsolicited advice.
  3. It is always a good idea to ask before offering advice.