Why Does Giving Advice Sometimes Backfire?

Written by John R. Stoker on . Posted in White Papers

Question: My spouse tells me that I am too quick to give her and our children advice. She says it feels like I am always telling her what to do. That’s certainly not my intention, but whenever I offer my opinion, she accuses me of “advicing” her. Is it wrong to give advice? Or is there a way to give advice without creating so much defensiveness in other people?

Answer: Giving unsolicited advice is what causes problems. Advice is necessarily preceded by a judgment or evaluation—which is based on our interpretation of the situation. Although you may sincerely intend to help or assist someone, giving unsolicited advice sends a variety of underlying messages which are all based on assumptions, and which are almost always perceived as negative. As a result, advice often comes across as judgmental, authoritative, or self-serving:

  • When we give unsolicited advice, the judgmental assumption is, “You can’t figure this out on your own,” or “I don’t trust you to figure it out.”
  • The authoritative assumption is, “I know better than you,” or “I know and you don’t, so I have to tell you.”
  • The self-serving assumption is, “I need to give you the benefit of my advice to validate or to prove to myself how smart I am.”

I once worked in an office where one of our co-workers took it upon herself to give us advice about every aspect of our lives. In an attempt to silence her once and for all, we decided to go out of our way to solicit her advice on absolutely everything. About a month later, she had in fact stopped giving unsolicited advice. Asking her for advice clearly communicated to her that she  and her opinions were valued. Once she recognized that, she no longer felt the need to constantly offer unsolicited advice.

Although you probably do not to put someone down by offering advice, these underlying assumptions serve to do more damage to your conversations than good.

Unsolicited advice can also easily come across as criticism or blame, especially when people use “should, could, would or ought to” as a way of giving advice. Notice how the various forms of advice may be perceived as criticism:

“You should ask the boss before you proceed.”

“I would prepare ahead of time, if I were you.”

Couldn’t you have done this faster?”

“You ought to talk to the client now.”

Listen to each of these statements as you read them to yourself. Objectively, it is fairly easy to recognize the negative underlying message the hearer might assume and understand that people could interpret these statements as, “You don’t know how to do what you’re doing.” I really believe that we do too much “shoulding” to people. We need to remember that growth and development—our own and the other guy’s—is based on the mistakes that we make. The challenge is not to make the same mistakes twice.

We are some suggestions for making your advice work.

Don’t interpret rhetorical questions as a request for advice. Sometimes we believe that a person is asking for advice, when they are really just asking a rhetorical question. For example, don’t take the bait if a co-worker blurts out, “I am so frustrated! What should I do?” Many people think out loud, so this might very well be just a simple expression of frustration. Let them carry on the conversation with themselves. If they want your advice, they will usually ask again or will frame the question to you more directly. Then you will know you are on safe ground.

Ask for permission to give advice. Sometimes when I ask for permission to share my advice, my kids will stop and say, “No! Actually I really just want you to listen.” If you are in doubt about whether the person wants your advice, you might say something like,

“I noticed you just asked for my advice. I was wondering if you really want to know what I think or if you’d rather I’d just listen. What would you like me to do?” 

They will tell you—and don’t be surprised or hurt if they don’t want your advice!

Ask self-reflective questions. No matter how much you think you understand, you really don’t. Asking questions will help you to understand their situation with greater depth. I also like to ask questions that cause people to think deeply. Here are a few you might try:

  • “How are you feeling?”
  • “What causes you to feel like that?”
  • “What do you want to do?”
  • “What keep you from doing that?”
  • “Will that work for you?”

Sometimes these types of questions help the individual become more self-aware of where they are and where they want to go.

Listen, listen, and listen! “You need to connect before you correct.” Asking questions and really listening to the responses creates connection between people. Connection is necessary for people to feel safe enough to tell you what is really challenging them.

Be honest. If someone asks for your advice and you don’t know what to say or how to help them, you need to admit that to yourself and to them. Don’t offer advice about something of which you know nothing. You don’t want to be responsible for negative outcomes.

Offer to assist, not insist. We should offer advice from the perspective of assisting the person. No matter what we think we know about their situation, we must be willing to admit that we can’t know everything. People will decide what is best for them and will choose their own course of action.

As a former attorney, I was always surprised how often people chose “hard”—the exact opposite of what I counseled them to do in a given situation! I can only trust that their decisions and the consequences for their decisions were what they needed to experience or learn from at that time. Allow people to trust and decide for themselves.

I hope these suggestions are helpful. My advice—always “ask before you offer!” 

John R. Stoker

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