No good sentence ever started with the words, “You know what you should do …?”
When you hear advice, and a little voice in your head says, “That’s a terrible idea. Definitely do NOT do what that person just suggested,” listen to yourself. There’s a very good reason most of us, at one time in our lives, have found ourselves in a situation that turned embarrassing, counterproductive, or dangerous because, instead of trusting ourselves, we put our faith in someone else’s advice. That’s because the concept of advice is intrinsically flawed, especially unsolicited advice. Here’s why.
- People learn from experience, and that is a very personal journey. Every time we try to solve our own problems, we learn a little about which strategies work for us. Trial and error makes us much stronger than following someone else’s suggestions. It also forces us to own the consequences of our choices. In other words, if I follow your advice and fail, I can blame you. If I try to solve my own problem and fail, I understand that I need to rethink that decision.
- Most people don’t want advice. We all have a certain degree of defensive defiance, which makes us feel that advice is interfering with our freedom to make our own decisions. It can also feel insulting to hear advice because it seems like we’re being told that we aren’t capable of making important decisions on our own.
- When we give advice, we don’t take into account basic personality differences. You might be able to pull off confronting your spouse about his annoying habits, which means your relationship is structured in a way that can withstand a little bit of bluntness. It is wrong to assume that your friend’s relationship is the same as yours.
So, if we can’t give advice, are we supposed to send our friends and loved ones off into the word without our indispensable wisdom? Absolutely. However, there are still ways to be supportive.
- Listen carefully and ask meaningful questions. Ask your friend who is about to storm into his boss’s office to make demands whether he has considered every possible outcome. Encourage him to talk through the scenario. Play with some “What if…” questions. He still might not make the decision you would have made, but at least he’s made a thoughtful choice.
- Offer facts that might have been missed. If your friend is about to go on a third date with someone that you’ve discovered to be a registered sex offender, telling her doesn’t qualify as advice. It’s factual information. Similarly, if she’s super excited about her vacation in a country that you know to be dangerous, advising her to do a thorough Google search first doesn’t qualify as unsolicited advice. In both cases, this friend is unaware of some vital facts. Once she has all the information, she’ll make her own choice.
- Be honest about your level of insight. Sometimes friends are dealing with issues we know absolutely nothing about. We can do more harm than good by trying to pretend that we know more than we do. It’s careless, and it’s arrogant. For example, if someone needs urgent care because he is addicted or abused, he needs more than friendly advice. Unless you are uniquely qualified to intervene, help your friend find assistance elsewhere.
Of course, there are many times that advice is harmless. It’s unlikely that your friend is going to end up in a dangerous situation because you advised buying a Camry instead of a Prius. That’s exactly the sort of advice that is fun and harmless. The trick is knowing the difference between telling someone to take a jacket on her cruise versus advising her to threaten to quit if she doesn’t get a raise.