Instead of Unsolicited Advice…

Unsolicited advice: It seems to be the response to any sort of confession that you’re struggling with something in your life. The mom who’s having trouble with latching on gets a pile of breastfeeding suggestions. The disabled person who mentions having trouble with chronic pain gets a helpful heap of advice on managing pain. The person venting about a problem at work gets people offering helpful hints about how to resolve it.

Have you considered changing breastfeeding positions? Maybe you need to talk to a lactation consultant? I heard acupuncture works great for chronic pain! My uncle tried meditation, and it really helped him get his pain in control after his surgery. Have you asked human resources to intervene? What about going to your boss and mentioning what’s going on?

Unsolicited advice often seems to stem from a genuine desire to sympathise. To help. To fix it and make it better. To find some kind of way to reach out to someone. Especially on the internet, we think that we know everyone, and when we see a complete stranger being frank about something going on in her life, we don’t consider why she’s talking. Is she asking for advice, or does she just want people to hear her?

We humans have a deep, inner compulsion to smooth over discomfort, which often manifests in the desire to ‘fix’ each other. If someone’s unhappy, we need to fix it – and we don’t want to recognise that fixing isn’t easy. We think we have the magical solution that will make the unhappiness go away, and unsolicited advice is what comes out. Even though we know how irritating it is when people do it to us, we seem driven to do it to other people, often unconsciously.

How do we get people to turn away from unsolicited advice and to something more productive? A huge component of it is active listening, which sounds like a ridiculous catchphrase from group therapy, which it is, but it’s also something pretty sound for daily life, as well. In active listening, you actually pay attention to what someone is saying, considering their words and what they are expressing, and reflecting on them. It’s not about when it’s your turn to speak, or what you think someone is saying, but rather, about what the person is actually communicating.

Consider these two statements:

‘I’ve had the worst time getting Nico down to bed the last few nights. Ugh!’

‘I’ve had the worst time getting Nico down to bed the last few nights. Thoughts, anyone?’

One is an expression of frustration. A parent struggling with a kid who won’t get to sleep. The other is the same, but with an added note. The parent is wondering if anyone has any ideas that might help.

Yet, people tend to respond the same way to both statements, with a flood of advice. That advice quickly turns prescriptive, and can become accusatory. Suddenly there’s one true way to do something, people are fighting over advice, and the person who originally made the statement is wondering what the point was in the first place.

Instead of unsolicited advice in response to a statement where someone is simply speaking to something that’s going on in her life, try just saying: ‘I hear you.’ If you have experience in that area, ‘I’ve been there.’ If you don’t, ‘I’m listening.’ ‘So sorry you’re struggling with this.’ ‘Thinking of you.’ Just stop there. You don’t need to say anything else. The original comment was simply a statement, an expression of frustration or anger or grief or fear or pain, and sometimes, people just need to know that people are paying attention, that people are thinking of them.

If you just can’t help yourself, don’t jump into advice. ‘I had the same problem with Sofia when she was Nico’s age! If you want any suggestions, happy to help.’ ‘Ugh, sorry to hear your new meds aren’t working. If you need me to pick anything up at the store, let me know.’ The first is an offer of advice, if it’s wanted. The second is a constructive offer of help, framed in a way that allows someone to take it or leave it. Both center the speaker, not the responder, and both extend a clear, concrete offer, but not one that must be taken.

When someone asks for advice, look at what the person is saying. If you don’t have any expertise in that area, maybe you should consider not saying anything. I, for example, have never breastfed, so if a person was talking about struggling with breastfeeding and asking for advice, I wouldn’t have anything of relevance to say on the subject. I might, however, say that I’m sorry she’s having such a hard time.

What advice do people want? Try preceding your statement with a clear comment that recognises you know someone is struggling, and that the advice you’re offering may not necessarily be helpful, but you found it useful. ‘Hey Cameron, sorry to hear your fibro is flaring up. I don’t know if this would help for you, but when my joint pain is really bad, I love swimming in the saltwater pool down at the club – I have an extra pass if you want to use it!’

Clear, to the point. You’re not prescribing the ultimate treatment. You’re not arguing with advice offered by others. You’re saying ‘here, this is something that helped me.’ If you see someone offering up advice that appears actively dangerous or outdated, you can speak up, but offer a gentle contradiction, not an aggressive one. Contrast: ‘NO! DO NOT use arnica, it’s really bad for you!’ ‘A study just came out questioning the efficacy of arnica, if you want to check it out, it’s over here.’ ‘Check on arnica with your doctor, especially if you’re using topical steroids too.’

Being asked for advice is a huge honour and a responsibility. Take it seriously – and don’t bombard people with it when they never asked for it.

Image: question mark, Karen Eliot, Flickr.