On Giving Advice

This post comes from a combination of my own slow, painful learning process complete with countless mistakes and people getting angry with me, and what I’ve found I like best from other people who want to give me advice.

When it comes right down to it, advice-giving is fraught with danger. I’ve seen plenty of neurotypicals mess this one up too, and I often see people cite it as a reason for friction between men and women – with men wanting to give advice, but women wanting sympathy or emotional support. So just to be clear, I am coming at this from the perspective of someone who is, more or less, a woman.

Now, onwards to my advice regarding giving advice! Let’s say a friend or someone you care about is talking about something craptastic in their life that is giving them trouble. And let’s say you think you have ideas that might help that you want to express. What is a good way to go about doing so?

  • Don’t.

Yep, that’s step one. Always always always start by holding back. There are circumstances and things you might be able to say that would help, but you need to make really sure that you are in those circumstances BEFORE shooting your mouth off with whatever advice you have going on.

  1. You don’t get it. Period.

Whatever is happening with your friend, however much it seems you know about what is going on, you don’t really get it. There may be nuance to the situation that you don’t know about or understand. There may be details that they are keeping private that change what the right thing to do is. They may have different capabilities than you, they may be experiencing the situation in a different way than you imagine you would. No matter how much you think that you understand, always remember that you don’t. Not really. Not completely.

  1. Stick to what you know.

SOOO many people mess this one up. Let’s say Joe’s friend Amy just got diagnosed with cooties. Joe just read an article saying that people with cooties need to cross their legs, dance the polka, and cough three times. “Wow!” says Joe. “I should tell this to Amy!” NO JOE, DON’T DO THAT. Amy probably already knows. Amy is probably doing lots of research about cooties on her own, and is talking to lots of doctors, and has plenty of cooties experts in her life. Joe is not a cooties expert, and should not attempt to dispense medical advice on cooties.

On the other hand, maybe Amy is REALLY ANGRY about having cooties, and along with dealing with the cooties, she’s dealing with all this anger. And maybe Joe has had experience in the past with being REALLY ANGRY about something and learned techniques for dealing with that anger. In that case, Joe definitely has something that might be useful. So, should he go ahead and give Amy his advice? Well, that depends…

  1. Did they ask?

Sometimes, if a person is open to advice, they will just say so. Maybe they’re open to advice in general, and maybe they state that only specific kinds of advice are welcome. In those cases, if your advice fits what they are looking for, then hey! You can give your advice! Woo hoo!

4a. Check first.

Of course, maybe they did not ask for advice. In that case, if you have something you think would be super, super useful, and it comes from things you really do know about, it is permissible to ask the person if they are open to advice. A few ways to ask might include “are you open to advice?” or “May I talk to you about anger?” or “I had cooties in the past, would it be ok if I shared what I learned from my experience?” If they say yes, hurrah! You get to give advice! If they say no, accept it. Keep your thoughts to yourself.

  1. Remember step 2.

I am so, so very serious about step two. Even if you are sticking to what you know, it is absolutely vital to remember that your experience is just that – your experience. It isn’t your friend’s experience, and what worked for you, even if it was amazing, may not work for your friend. Be aware of your limitations.

  1. Try to talk about yourself, rather than saying “you should do x.”

On top of being aware of your limitations, openly express them! I’ve noticed that some people put their advice in absolute terms, but I strongly recommend against that. Say things like “Spinning to the left on one foot really helped me with my cooties, so I think you could try that” and NOT NOT NOT “Spin to the left on one foot. It will cure you!” Go ahead and share your experience, what worked for you, what you think is worth trying, and anything else that might be helpful, and refrain from putting on some front of Knowing All The Answers. Because you don’t. Be ok with that.

  1. Never, EVER invalidate.

If your friend says “that won’t work for me,” just believe them. Yeah, maybe they’re feeling really down and depressed and see everything as hopeless. Maybe your advice really would help. If that is the case – you cannot fix that. All you can do is accept what they say as their truth.

Also, it is incredibly important to remember step two, once again. It is also very possible that your advice really wouldn’t work, or that they’ve already tried it, or whatever else. Remember that their experience is not your experience, and there are probably factors that you just do not understand. Just because something worked great for you, that doesn’t mean it will work great for them.

  1. Other things that can help.

You don’t actually have to give advice in order to be helpful to a person who is dealing with ickiness in their lives. I think often bad advice-giving is a misguided attempt to help. However, there ARE other things you can do.

  • offer hugs. Even in text, a *hug* conveys that you are thinking of them and you care. It may seem like a small, silly thing, but to a person who is struggling with awful and feels alone, a page full of *hugs* just for them can be incredibly nice.
  • offer sympathy. “I’m so sorry you are dealing with this” is also a very nice thing to see or hear when you feel alone.
  • be a cheerleader. “You can do it!” “I believe in you!” “You are strong!”
  • Want to do something more substantial? Offer your services, in whatever capacity you can manage. If your friend’s life is all taken up with dealing with cooties, small things like cooking dinner and doing the laundry can become overwhelming tasks. You can help with that! An open-ended “let me know if there’s anything I can do to help” is common, but I do not recommend it. Instead, offer, or even ask, to do specific things. Or, if you don’t know what you can do but you really want to do something, try “what can I do to help?”
  • Ask questions. Actively listen, asking open-ended questions for further detail, asking for explanations if you do not understand something, and generally encouraging the person to lay it out there. IF, of course, they actually want to. Don’t push it if they indicate they’d rather not go into detail.
  • Finally, just listen. Sometimes people just need to bitch and moan for a while, and the best thing you can do is listen. Sometimes the choicest commentary is simply “wow, that sucks!”

So that’s what I’ve learned in my life about giving, and not giving, advice. What sorts of things have you learned?


Filed under social skills

2 responses to “On Giving Advice

  1. Chris

    Thanks for your writing. It’s really helpful.

  2. Janice

    Wow, what an insightful and well thought out post. I agree with absolutely everything you said.

    Your thoughts on not really knowing what the other person is going through (advice #2) is wise. It is amazing that people can go through the same experience and have different perceptions and memories of what happened. It amazes me still. And if two can’t agree on an experience shared by both, they certainly won’t see what the other person experienced own their own.

    I also agree with don’t offer advice unless it is asked for. Unfortunately, I have found that people who ask for your advice usually don’t follow it, or will come up with a “reason” why that advice won’t work for their special situation because…. Oh well. Stay patient. Just listen.

    I also like your way of asking for permission to offer your opinion or advice.

    I could really really relate to this blog.