Carola is a mental health advocate and a freelance writer who focuses on mental health, mental illness, and cognitive conditions.
After sharing my cancer diagnosis with friends and acquaintances back in 2011, I was inundated with unwanted advice. One person encouraged me to contact a friend who “cured” her cancer by drinking green goop. Some people asked leading questions about my diet and exercise so they could pounce on me with advice about my eating habits and lifestyle. Some pressured me to try various herbal remedies and alternate therapies. Others promoted misconceptions and myths about cancer as fact.
As they yammered on, I would stop listening. All I wanted is for the talking to stop. When I was really annoyed, I demanded that they cease and desist. I feel like I am competent enough to make the right decisions without their input. I have the right to decide what I eat, how much I exercise, and my lifestyle. I do not believe that my microwave causes cancer, so it is staying in my kitchen.
I know that most of these people had the best of intentions and really wanted to help me. However, their approach made me feel defensive. Their counsel came across as judgment and criticism. Their advice sometimes exposed that they did not know what they were talking about.
My emotions were in turmoil. I felt my natural boundaries against harmful speech had been violated. Some words feel like a slap in the face. I would become frustrated in angry. My natural response was to do the opposite of what they were advising me to do.
People who give unwanted recommendations may start with these common phrases:
"Why don't you..."
"You should try..."
"What if you..."
"If I was you I would..."
"What I did is..."
"Have you thought about..."
Why People Give Unsolicited Advice
On the surface, people may appear to be motivated by genuine concern and a desire to help. It is understandable that people want to fix their friends’ perplexing issues. When people tell others about problems, they instantly want to resolve them. They want to find solutions and feel the rush of a job well done. Most of the time, people do not welcome unsolicited advice from others. The counsel may frustrate and anger them.
However, they may have ulterior motives such as:
- Making themselves feel good and more self-confident by “guiding” others
- A compulsion to share their knowledge and expertise as an "expert"
- Gaining a sense of control and power over others
- Wanting to “fix” people
- Giving advice that is cloaked criticism
- Rescuing that people keep making the same mistakes despite their advice
- A desire to stir up conflict
- A narcissistic tendency to “teach” others
- To appear that they are heroes who are rescuing the person
- To coerce people into adopting their own belief system and thinking the same way the advice givers do
- To show they are superior to others
We may not fit into these categories and have the best of intentions for giving unwanted advice. However, our intentions may hurt the individuals we want to help. People may feel pressured to accept our advice when they do not want to follow it. They may feel embarrassed, defensive, frustrated, or angry. However, if we avoid giving unwanted advice, we can maintain healthy relationships with others.
The Harm That Unsolicited Advice Can Do
It Interferes with Listening
When individuals face a perplexing situation, they often want to talk about it with someone they trust. Their feelings may be stirred up by anger and frustration. They are looking for a place to vent and receive comfort and validation. We need to focus on hearing them out and not be distracted by the solutions that are popping up in our heads.
People May be Looking for Options and Not Solutions
People may be contemplating how to solve complex problems and are not ready to make a decision. They may become defensive if pushed by unwanted counsel.
We Are Probably Not Experts in The Issues Being Discussed
When I was unemployed, I often got advice about job search methods that were outdated and wrong in this digital world. Hearing bad advice is aggravating. People usually do not know enough about my story to comment.
People May be Offended and Hurt Us
If we jump in with advice, we may come across as knowing better than them how to address their issues. People do not want to be told what to do or be rescued. Individuals will often find this intrusion offensive and embarrassing.
Offended individuals may feel judged and retaliate in righteous indignation. People may point out character flaws that disqualify us from giving counsel. We may face a barrage of hurtful words such as:
“Who do you think you are?”
“Stay out of my business.”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
We may feel angry and hurt because people do not listen or take our guidance. It is hard to see people go down the wrong path or make the same mistake over and over again.
However, we need to respect that people have the right to make their own decisions without interference. After all, we would not want other people to tell us what to do when they do not know what they are talking about, right? An exception where advice is needed is if individuals are putting themselves in harm's way or danger.
We May Appear Arrogant and Condescending
We may sincerely want to help but can come across as obnoxious, judgmental, and overbearing. People may feel they are being criticized. Unwanted advice can destroy relationships.
Our Advice May Have Disastrous Results
If we give advice and something goes wrong, people who have taken our advice may blame us for the poor outcome. “ You told me to do this, so it is your fault things did not work out,” they might say. People should take responsibility for their own words and actions.
What We Can Do Instead
Listen Fully and Ask Questions
People want to be heard and understood. Asking questions helps us learn more about their situation. Our inquiries also help the people who are venting to explore and resolve their own issues.
We can assure them that we are hearing them by reflective listening. This technique involves reflecting back on what the person is saying, usually starting with a phrase such as: “So I hear you saying that…” or “It sounds like you are feeling…” This practice enables speakers to clear up any misconceptions we may have.
We should boost their confidence in their decision-making abilities by pointing out their good qualities. Stories of their past successes can help encourage them
Tell Relevant Stories
We may know others who have had similar challenges and found solutions for them. Our stories can provide new information and other perspectives on their circumstances.
Ask for Permission To Give Input
We can politely ask for permission before we put our two cents in, such as “Can I make a suggestion?” This empowers the person to say “no,” if they want. People want to feel in control and resist advice from others.
There are exceptions to the no advice rule. It is when people talk about committing a crime or are threatening to harm themselves or others. In other cases, unwanted guidance may hurt, embarrass, or anger other people. If the people in our lives want our advice, they will ask for it.
Stephen Ministry training materials
Psychology Says People Who Give Lots of Advice Secretly Want This 1 Thing, Inc., Wanda Thibodeaux
How to (NOT) Give Advice, PsychCentral
Why Giving Advice Doesn't Work, Forbes, Mark Murphy
The Psychological Reasons You Shouldn’t Give Advice to Anyone, Medium, Zulie Rane
Types of Unsolicited Advice That Cause Stress, verywellmind.com, Elizabeth Scott
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Carola Finch
mabelhenry from Harrisburlg, Pennsylvania on June 08, 2021:
Hi Carolyn: This is an excellent point you have made. These days it is like walking on egg shells when conversing. I strongly believe that if we are cognizant of our intent and motivation to the extent of repenting before speaking we would cover our words and ears to the point of giving and receiving respect when crossing boundaries that we are not always aware that we have or are crossing, but that is not an excuse. It all boils down to respecting each other. I see offending in a new light these days, if I offend me why would others not offend me, I must have left my closet door open somehow and someway. My approach now is repenting before entering and exiting conversations with others, in order not to continuously offend myself and I understand that others can only offend themselves because I am not willing to offend them or myself.
James 3:2-6 King James Version (KJV) 2 For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. It is maturity that we seek in every opportunity we get to converse with others. Most of the time we equalize others to where we are on every level, when the truth is everyone is on a different page. We carry a large amount of the schooling program we received, in class everyone has to be on the same page, in maturity, we expect it to prevail because it is the directive for adult conduct. You opened with a situation that I was in shock that anyone could advise you after the bout with cancer, but to pray it in remission. Thanks for sharing this article.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on June 08, 2021:
I don't take advice from anyone though I would listen to what one has to say. Advice taken is not always helpful. I believe that one should do as they wish and and think is right for them. Challenges are there and risks too. Do whatever pleases them.