Lesson 4 of 7 - optimize your relationships

Perspective on Giving
Other People Advice

Avoid Offending Them

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/relate/advice.htm

  Updated  01-18-2015

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      Typical people aren't aware of when and how to advise, or of some potential relationship pitfalls advising can cause. This article offers perspective (advice) on giving advice to kids and other adults while preserving or improving your relationship. It presents...

  • Perspective on giving advice;

  • Two options for advising, and a major pitfall with one of them;

  • Six types of advice to be aware of; and...

  • How to respond to unwanted advice

      This brief YouTube video hilights what you'll read in this article:

       The article assumes you're familiar with:

  Perspective on Advice

      Note the difference between giving feedback to people, instructing them, and advising them. Feedback means giving information about something - e.g. about the person, their behavior, your feelings and needs, your opinions and perceptions, etc. Instruction is teaching a person how to do something. Advising is feedback about what you think the other person should do about something.  

      All kids and adults have daily and long-term problems - physical and psychological needs (discomforts). They range form minor to major, and immediate to long-term. Pause and reflect: what are the current problems you face?

      Now focus on several adults and/or children who are important to you. For each one, try saying out loud what you think their most pressing current problems are. What's causing them the most stress now?

      There are many ways to support ("help") someone with a problem - empathic listening, spending time together, prayers, appropriate touching (like hugs), verbal and written encouragement and reassurance, flowers, cards, phone calls, physical assistance, providing resources, doing favors, and giving suggestions (advising). This article focuses on the last of these.

What's Your Style?

      Depending on many factors, adults and kids have four main choices in resolving their current problems:

  • deny or minimize problem/s and/or postpone trying to solve them;

  • acknowledge problems, and implement their own solutions without seeking advice;

  • feel torn, indecisive, and unsure of what to do, but don't admit this or seek help; or..

  • feel torn, indecisive, and unsure of what to do, admit the problem, and ask for help.

       People may unconsciously choose one of these options as their preferred "style": Juanita can be "independent,": and prefer to solve her own problems her way. Neil may solve some of his own problems, and ask for help with others; Alicia may have learned to get attention in childhood, she could be "helpless" and her adults would fill her needs even if she could do so herself.

      Do you see yourself in one of these four "resolution styles"? If not, what is your style?

Reacting to Other Adults' Problems

      How do you normally react when someone tells you of a significant problem of theirs? Are you usually...

  • unempathic and indifferent ("That's your problem, not mine." / "It's none of my business")?

  • empathic and concerned, but feel no need to help?

  • empathic and concerned, and wanting to help?

  • very concerned and feeling compelled to help? And are you usually...

  • aware of your reaction to them? .

      In any situation, your choice among these reaction-options will depend on many things, like...

  • whether your true Self guides you or not;

  • how aware and empathic your ruling subselves are;

  • what current problems you face, and how distracting they are;

  • who the other person is (e.g. an adult or a child, able or disabled);

  • your relationship with them (e.g. stranger / acquaintance / coworker / friend / relative / mate);

  • your gender, (typical women listen, typical men try to "fix"); and...

  • the nature of the other person's problem (e.g. a crisis or not / local or long-term / medical, psychological, or relationship / etc.).

      Though every situation is unique, you (your dominant subselves) may unconsciously choose one of these reaction "styles" more than others. Do you have different styles with different people?  Do you see your preferred style here?  If not, how would you describe your usual response when other adults tell you of their problems? Do you have the same response with troubled kids?

Who's Responsible?

      If someone asks you for advice, two variables to be aware of: are (1) how to advise, and (2) what to advise. More on these options in a moment. If someone with a problem doesn't ask for your advice, you face a dilemma. If you see a potential or actual source of discomfort or danger that they don't see or admit. Is it your responsibility to alert (advise) them? If so, how and when do you do that?

      If you're a caregiving adult and the at-risk person is a child, you may feel no dilemma - "Of course I'm responsible for trying to protect this child!" If the other person is a mentally-competent adult other than a relative, are you responsible for alerting them to the problem you perceive? Do you feel that generally, others are responsible for alerting you?

      Though every situation is unique, one thing is common to all: your integrity and self respect. If your values dictate that you "must" alert the other person in order to be "a good person," then you should do so - but beware of a pitfall that can damage your relationship.

      Whether it's requested or not, there are...

Three Ways to Help Someone

       The first way is to advise spontaneously and authoritatively, without being aware of your or the other person's primary needs. "Well you should (do something)" or "You need to (do something.)" Depending on your facial expression, choice of words, and voice dynamics, this can come across as an arrogant, disrespectful put-down.

      Reality check: think of the last time someone told you what you "need to do" without your asking for advice (e.g. "You really need to lose some weight!"). How did you feel?

      Even with the best of intentions, this kind of unaware, spontaneous advice can cause irritation, hurt, and resentment. ("I don't need you to tell me what I need!"). If this arrogant advising is repeated in different situations, it can cause increasing distrust and dislike and may rupture the relationship - specially if the receiving person doesn't express their feelings.

      The second (and better) way to advise someone takes conscious awareness of several things before acting:

  • Is my true Self in charge? If not, who is? A false self is apt to ignore these awarenesses or give you skewed answers.

  • What do I need here? What's my payoff for advising - to...

    • feel good about myself?

    • get the other person to like me?

    • reduce some anxiety, irritation, and/or guilt?

    • please someone else?

  • What does s/he (the other person) really need here?"

  • Do I see our needs as being equally important?

  • Is s/he open to my advice?

  • If so, which type of advice should I give (see below)?

  • If s/he's not open, what are my options?

      Notec your reaction to what you just read. Think of someone whom you feel needs advice, and imagine answering these internal questions before you advise them. Do you think this would be helpful to both of you?

      A third way to help someone with a problem is a paradox - helping them by not advising them. This is a judgment call. If you're too reliable about advising a person with problems, they may avoid self-responsibility and depend on (or expect) you to solve their problem. This can breed resentment and frustration in both of you 

      This paradoxical way of helping can sound like this:

Other person - "So what do you think I should do?"

You - "I'm not sure. What do you need?"

Person - "Well, uh, I don't know."

You - "So you need to identify what you need;" or "What would help you to feel better?":

      Asking brief, clear, open-ended questions instead of advising can help the other person become clearer on what they need and what their options are..

      Another example.

Person - "I just don't know what to do about ________________." (An implied request for advice)

You - "You're really stumped." (empathic listening, not advising)

Person - "Yeah. Do you have any ideas?" (asking for advice)

You - "Not really, no. What do you need, exactly?"

Six Types of Advice

      To raise the odds that your advice will be useful, be aware of these six options:

Immediate vs. Long-term Advice

Which is better: give a hungry person a fish,
 or teach them how to fish?

      This timeless question illustrates two choices you have in advising a child or adult - to (1) help them solve a current problem (fill a local need), or to (2) show them how to solve their own problems. The first is short term, the second is long term. Your choice will depend on many variables like those above - specially whether your true Self is deciding, and whether the other person is a child..

      If you believe long-term advice is appropriate, consider describing one or more of these to the other person...

  • the difference between surface needs and primary needs ("problems")

  • the steps involved in win-win problem solving .

  • how to analyze and resolve typical relationship problems, and perhaps...

  • how to free the person's true Self to avoid or manage multiple and/or chronic problems. Refer them to self-improvement Lesson 1 here.

Vague vs. Specific Advice

      Some advice is so general and vague it is meaningless. For example;

       Vague: "You really should really learn to manage your money better.":

       Specific: "Let me show you how to balance your checkbook."

So besides being aware of short-term vs. long term advice, also be aware of whether your advice is specific and practical. A third useful awareness is about...

Support vs. Criticism

      Has anyone advised you sarcastically or critically? The person's face and voice dynamics - and perhaps their words - convey disapproval or scorn. Even if the advice is practical and appropriate, the way it's delivered can cause resentment, hurt and anger. Empathic, respectful advice and support will cause gratitude.

      If someone gives judgmental advice, they're probably unaware of being controlled by a false self. Even if they pretend respect, their face, body, and speech will "leak" their 1-up attitude.

      A similar problem may occur if the person receiving the advice is ''shame based'' (psychologically wounded). They may distort reality and see well-intentioned advice as disrespectful criticism. Their tireless Inner Critic can also scorn  themselves for needing advice.

Responding to Unwanted Advice

      You have several options if someone advises you without your asking for input. you can...

  • ignore their advice;.

  • acknowledge it and ignore it;

  • complain, blame, and express irritation or anger; or...

  • use awareness and an ''I-message'' to inform the other person how their behavior affects you and what you need from them. That could sound like...

"(Name), when you offer me advice without checking to see if I need your opinion, I feel irritated and resentful (or whatever). In the future, please ask me if I want suggestions first, OK?"

If your true Self guides you, you'll feel comfortable asserting yourself like this. Can you think of anyone who gives you unwanted advice? How do you feel they'd respond to an assertive "I-message" like this? How would you feel?


      This article is one of a series designed to help you optimize your relationships. Because it's human nature to advise each other The article presents...

  • perspective on giving advice to other people;

  • two options for advising, and a major pitfall with one of them;

  • six types of advice to be aware of; and...

  • how to respond to unwanted advice

Two keys to giving genuinely useful advice are to ensure your true Self is guiding you, and to be aware of a number of factors in you and the other person.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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