How Helpful Is It to Give Unsolicited Advice?

How helpful is it to give unsolicited advice? - cartoon of Peanuts advice booth

I think we’ve probably all felt the urge at one point or another to give advice. We see the situation someone is in, and can’t help but think if they only did X, then things would be so much better for them. Chances are that most of us have also been on the receiving end of unhelpful or unwanted advice (and quite possibly on the giving end as well). So how do we navigate the giving and receiving of advice to yield the greatest benefit?

Fix-it tendencies

It seems to me that we all have different strengths of “fix it” tendencies than others. Despite being very well-meaning, sometimes offering a fix-it solution can actually have the opposite of the intended effect.

A friend of mine is very much a Mr. Fix-it type. It’s been an ongoing issue that he will make a well-meaning attempt to fix the problem I’m talking about, and I’ll get upset because I feel invalidated. My own Ms. Fix-it tendencies are most likely to kick in when Nurse Ashley has something to say. I recognize that I need to put more effort into making sure that stays in check.

What to consider before giving advice

It’s worth considering whether or not the person is actually asking for advice. I’ve noticed something interesting in this respect on my own blog. I typically conclude my posts with a question to try to generate dialogue. On some posts, I’ve noticed that this gets interpreted as asking for advice.

It’s okay if people want to give advice; however, it does show that what seems like a request for advice may not have originally been intended that way.

It’s also useful to consider how much is known about the context. I find it fascinating when people who aren’t familiar with me or my blog at all will read a single post and comment with advice that doesn’t even remotely apply to me, which of course they wouldn’t realize because they don’t know me from a hole in the ground.

Another potentially tricky situation is when someone explicitly asks for advice but then doesn’t seem to be receptive to advice when it’s actually given. Was the request for advice not genuine to begin with? Are some particular factors on the advice-giver’s side unwelcome? Or some of both? That’s a particularly tough situation to navigate, as it seems likely that neither party is feeling great about the interaction.

When advice misses the mark

Then you have the medical advice-givers who are way off the mark. I’m talking about the really out there advice like you should stop taking medications and go for a walk instead. Is it worth it to point out how off the mark these people are? Or is it better to just ignore it and move on? Not too long ago, I had a comment on a post about my health that I considered beyond out there and venturing into the territory of bizarre, and I decided it was probably better to just not even go there. It did stick with me enough to inspire this post, though, so clearly, it had an effect.

I think it matters how we give the advice. We can tell someone what to do (“you should do X”), make a tentative suggestion (“maybe you could try X”), or offer ourselves as an example (“I tried X and it worked well”). I think the first option is the most likely to be met with resistance (I talk more about this in my post on motivational interviewing).

I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that giving and receiving advice is often not as simple as it may seem. There are a lot of things to take into consideration to make sure we’re getting the most out of the advice we both give and receive, and being mindful of those things can help to make run more smoothly.

The New Yorker has some great cartoons on unsolicited advice.

Mental health coping toolkit

The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.

8 thoughts on “How Helpful Is It to Give Unsolicited Advice?”

  1. Yeah, I sometimes ask for advice from my parents then get annoyed with them, because I don’t really want advice, I just want to vent/catastrophise. This isn’t healthy, but I’m not sure what to do about it.

    At my depression group we’re not allowed to give advice, but we can offer suggestions. That usually works well, but sometimes it can be a bit of a slippery slope. I know I once said something about being lonely and got a load of advice about dating, some of which I had already tried and not had success with and the rest of which was not applicable to the Orthodox community, but I didn’t have the energy to spend five minutes going into Jewish sociology, so I think I just said I’d think about what they said and changed the subject.

  2. I love to be asked for advice, but have definitely found that “this is what I tried and what worked for me in a similar situation, but I won’t be at all offended if you don’t think that feels right for you” is what is received best.

    That’s weird about people interpreting your open question at the end as an invitation to give advice. I think we must project our needs onto the question. I’ve personally always seen it as an invitation to share my own experience, and I’m like “yay! I love talking about myself!” But then on another blog once with a similar question after a post about something upsetting for the blogger I ended up feeling like I was doing it all wrong and making it all about me, I was the first commenter and everyone after me seemed to interpret it that we should be offering support to the blogger and nothing else ie that the “question” was really just a cry for help.

    1. It’s certainly not always easy to tell how to interpret something.
      I think part of the effectiveness of “this worked for me” approach is that it conveys empathy along with the advice.

  3. This is a great post. Advice giving and receiving flows into every aspect of our lives. I think sometimes people offer advice to be helpful, but there’s always the gray-area category and that advice is hard to process. But I think I’ve also been on the giving side, thinking I’m helping, so your post is a good reminder to be careful at either end.

  4. I can relate. Just ended a relationship over unsolicited advice ALL the time. It was too much and I started to get offended. People who lack empathy sometimes do that, they don’t understand entirely how they can hurt others.

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