“What would you do?”

Ever have someone ask you that, after telling you their story?  They want to know what you would do, if you were in their situation.  They want advice.  Presumably, since they’ve asked what you would do.

The question is, should you give advice?  Most of us have been burned before.  Given advice that angered someone and maybe put a rift in a friendship.  Or put a lot of time and thought into a response only to see your efforts go ignored.

My advice (see what I did there)?  Give it sparingly, if at all.  Here’s why.

  1. Most of the time, people don’t actually want advice.  I have a theory on why that is.  But I believe that even when we ask for advice, most of us don’t really want it.  Advice, even thoughtful, carefully delivered advice, often has a way of pissing us off.
  2. We don’t actually know what we would do in that person’s situation.  If I had a dollar for every time I looked at someone else’s problem and said “if that happened to me, I would …” and then had that thing happen to me and did exactly what I thought I wouldn’t do, well, I wouldn’t be rich, but I’d have enough for a nice dinner.  Maybe even a good vacation.  Even if you’ve lived through what that person is living through now, there’s one huge difference that makes any advice you might give potentially useless:  you are not them.  Your life circumstances, experiences, upbringing, thoughts, feelings, likes and dislikes are all different, even though you might have experienced the same situation.
  3. We love our own advice and tend to get offended if people don’t take it.  Most of the time, it seems, people don’t take the advice they receive.  Often, people aren’t very invested in a solution they didn’t come up with on their own, so they don’t follow through.  The thing is, that bugs us.  We took the time to think about their situation and offer our carefully considered opinion on the matter.  How rude that the recipient didn’t use our pearls of wisdom?  Why did we bother?  What a waste of time!

So what are you supposed to do when someone actually asks you for advice then?  It might be kind of weird to just say “no” and walk away.  And what if we really do want to try to help somehow?

Now, if you really feel like you want to go ahead and give advice, take a read through Mark Manson’s article How to Give Advice Without Being a Condescending Asshole before you proceed for some advice on how to give advice.  But if you decide that you might not want to give advice, here’s what you can do instead.

  1. Listen.  Most people just want to be heard.  Just be there with them and listen.  Empathize.
  2. Validate their feelings.  We live in a world that tries to push away the negative.  We’re told that we shouldn’t be angry, sad, disappointed.  We should suck it up and focus on the positive.  The thing is, all the negative feelings are valid.  Of course you’re angry because you got thrown under the bus at work.  Of course you’re disappointed that your partner doesn’t give you the type of attention that you want.  All of those feelings are perfectly reasonable and deserve to be felt and acknowledged and even welcomed.  People need to know that what they feel is real and okay and it doesn’t make them a freak or a bad person.  Give them that.
  3. Ask questions.  If you think the person is really looking for a solution, ask them some open ended questions.  “How does that make you feel?”,  “How do you want things to be?”, “What would be the ideal situation?”, “What would you tell me if I were in that situation?”  When I took my coaching training, we were taught that most of coaching is not giving advice at all, but listening and asking the right questions to help the other person discover the right solution for them.  I thought this was nonsense when I first heard it, but it really started to make sense to me when I had my first practice session with another student.  He described a situation he wanted resolved and I got really excited because I had just gone through the exact same thing and figured I could really help this guy.  But, I stuck to the guidelines of asking questions and he came to solution that was completely different from what had worked for me.  And he was really happy with it.  Asking questions can be a really powerful way to help someone.

Now that you’re armed with this advice, you can go forth with confidence in advice giving situations!


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Advice — why you shouldn’t give it, and what you should do
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