Practical Communication , Uncategorized , Workplace Communication

My Advice on Sharing Unsolicited Advice? Think Twice

Okay, before I get started, I have to admit one of my many flaws: I DO NOT like being told what to do. My natural instinct when someone says, “You should. . .” or “You have to. . .” is to do the exact opposite. It’s not that I’m not open to advice or others’ opinions,  but I take offense at the way many people offer their advice and opinions.

There’s an older gentleman at my gym who is in great shape. According to him, he’s been lifting weights for 30 years and it shows. I admire his dedication and I assume, based on the results he’s achieved, that he probably knows a lot about weight lifting. Here’s the problem though. I’ve been lifting weights for a long time too. I’ve had a professional personal trainer. I’m working out based on my own experience, knowledge, and research. I have a plan for the next two hours and I want to just follow it. So when he comes up and says, “You should really do three reps instead. . .” I resent it. In fact, it’s gotten to the point that when I get to the gym and he’s not there, I breathe a sigh of relief. When he is there and I see him heading toward me to offer more unsolicited advice, I start getting aggravated before he even opens his mouth, because I know a” lecture” is coming.

The other day at the grocery store as I was checking out, a man behind me in line said loudly, “You know, you shouldn’t leave your purse wide open. Someone will steal your things.”  I had my wallet in my hand, not in my purse, and there was nothing else in my purse worth stealing, unless there was a crazed pen thief stalking the grocery store. I was polite and replied, “You’re probably right. I have my wallet in my hand so I wasn’t too worried.” However, he just couldn’t let it go. “Well, I can see everything in your purse. Your checkbook is right there in the open.” Not wanting to continue the discussion, I just said, “Thank you,” and left the store. However, what I wanted to say was, “That’s not my checkbook and why are you taking inventory of my purse? Are you a crazed pen thief?”

After this latest incident of being on the receiving end of unsolicited advice, I asked my Facebook followers their thoughts on the subject. Some felt I should just focus on advice givers’ good intentions and be grateful that there were people in the world who were looking out for me. Others were equally aggravated by strangers offering their unsolicited opinions, especially on certain topics, such as one’s parenting techniques. A few people felt that it depended on the advice. If the advice was “life and death,” such as a parent who noticed another parent had her baby’s car seat improperly installed, then the advice was warranted.

After considering everyone’s input, I’ve come up with some advice for advice givers, that will help ensure their advice is received in the spirit that it was intended:

1. Ask first before offering your advice- Asking allows the receiver to decide if he wants your advice. If he says yes, then he almost has to be more receptive to what you have to say. If the guy in the grocery store line had said, “May I give you a shopping safety tip?” I’d have likely said yes and would have been more open to his input.

2. Consider whether your advice is legitimate, factual, and necessary, or just your personal opinion- You may have strong opinions about letting a child eat candy, but that doesn’t warrant telling a stranger that she shouldn’t give candy to her child. It’s really none of your business.

In the case of the baby car seat above, when there’s only one correct way to safely install the seat, it is legitimate to offer your factual advice. Additionally, because a child’s safety is concerned, the advice is necessary.

“Hello, I hate to bother you, but I noticed that your car seat isn’t installed exactly correctly. I had mine installed that way too, but I learned the correct way at a police safety demonstration the other day. Can I show you?”

3. Don’t begin your advice with, “You should,” or “You have to”-
Any time you begin with YOU phrases such as these, there is a connotation of accusation, as if you were pointing a finger at the other person in a negative way. Instead, try, “I find it’s better to. . .” or “In my experience. . .”

4. Consider your motivation before offering advice- Are you offering your input to help the other person, or simply to be right, be superior, or to make him or her look bad? Be sure your motivation is to truly help or benefit the other person.

5. No matter how kindly you offer your advice, don’t be surprised if you get a negative reaction- Even if you phrase your advice in the most polite, non-defensive way possible, others may still not appreciate it. One Facebook follower said she was at Disney World and noticed a family who was trying to get to a certain attraction, but was headed the wrong way. As a Disney World expert, she offered up the correct directions. Her thanks for helping out? Being told by the mom to mind her own business.When it comes to giving even the best advice, you won’t always be rewarded with appreciation. However, you can be satisfied that you at least tried to help someone, and I’ll bet, when the Disney expert walked away, the family followed her directions.

Finally, because I know the advice above won’t reach all advice givers out there,  in next week’s blog I’ll share your options for assertively and respectfully responding to unsolicited advice.

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