Where do you go when you need advice? Most of us will consult a professional or chat with someone we trust, maybe a particularly insightful friend, or a family member with the relevant experience. It is unlikely that any of us would ask a random stranger on the bus or someone we met whilst out on a walk and yet that won’t necessarily stop those people from giving us unsolicited advice.
I’ve been thinking about unsolicited advice a lot over the last few days. At the weekend I was walking along the coast path near Land’s End. I had already walked about ten miles and I was hot so I had put my jacket in my rucksack The T-shirt I was wearing was perfectly adequate. And yet an elderly man took it upon himself to accost me, saying (somewhat grumpily), “It’s not as warm as you think, you need to put a jumper on or you’ll catch a chill.”
I’m basically quite a polite person so I simply nodded and smiled and continued on my way. But, you know what? I’m 54 years old, I’ve got this! And unless you have lived in the body of a middle aged woman you cannot possibly understand that there is no correlation whatsoever between the weather and my body temperature – I haven’t been cold for at least two years!
I mentioned this episode to my daughter, who, as the mother of a three month old baby, had her own stories to tell about unsolicited advice of the “that baby needs feeding/is too warm/too cold” variety.
I’m not talking about the sharing of information. I’m walking a lot at the moment and I love all the little conversations and shared moments along the way. I love it when someone says “I’ve just seen seals in the next cove”, or “there’s a loose plank on that next footbridge”. That’s different. That’s helpful. That’s a basic human connection that says “we are here separately but doing the same thing and isn’t it great?”
The difference is that unsolicited advice so often sounds like criticism. It doesn’t matter whether the giver intended to criticise or not, even with the best will in the world they are essentially saying “I know better than you”. There is an arrogance in the giving of unsolicited advice. In a recent blog I talked about the difference between sympathy and empathy and there is a strong connection here. The man who told me I needed a jumper probably thought he was being helpful but he was judging me based on his experience not mine.
It’s not just strangers who offer unsolicited advice, friends and family are often the first to tell you what you “should” be doing in any given situation. Too often the love and understanding we are looking for will be met with advice on how to fix a situation rather than with the empathy we desire.
So why do people feel the need to offer unsolicited advice? Well, the reasons vary and range from a well intentioned desire to help, to a less well intentioned need to control others.
People are often surprised to find that, as a coach, I rarely give advice. It is not my job to tell people what to do. My role is to help people look at a situation dispassionately, to work out what they would like to happen and to find a way to make that happen. Along the way I may offer information or training if it is appropriate but only ever with the express consent of the client.
If you find yourself giving unsolicited advice, please stop. Ask yourself why you feel a need to tell someone what they should do. Try to work out what need of your own you are trying to meet.
If you have an area of your own life (home/work/relationships/goals etc.) that you would like to improve, and you would like someone to help you find the right path with empathy and without ever telling you what you “should” do, please get in touch.