We all have friends that need a little advice (and you probably need some too), but one of the problems with those types of conversations is that it's really easy to come off as "holier than thou" when you're offering help. When you do that, nobody's going to listen.
Title image remixed from Lorelyn Medina (Shutterstock).
When you have a friend who's stuck in a rut, it's normal to want to provide some type of insight to get them out of it. But it's not an easy conversation to have with someone, especially when you know all the extenuating circumstances of their situation. I talked with relationship and family therapist Roger S. Gil to get some advice for dealing with these situations.
First Off: Make Sure They Want Your Advice
Obviously not everyone is looking for your advice. Before you go offering your point of view, make sure they're interesting in hearing it. As Roger Gil points out, oftentimes friends aren't looking for you to solve a problem. They just want you to listen and maybe ask some questions. Gil explains why:
People often think that therapists spend most of their time giving advice. The truth is that we usually listen and ask questions that get people to take a hard look at what rationale informs their opinions, how they feel about various things and what they have tried in the past. In other words, we make the person go through the process of developing their own solutions rather than listing a series of steps to take. Most of the time a person that's seeking a solution will be asking questions about topics that don't have clearly defined "best practices" or steps that one should take.
So ask if they would like to hear your input or insights on a problem, and also ask questions about why they feel a certain way. If they say "no", let them finish their story and listen politely. Gil also adds that even when you know the answer to something, you might want to keep your mouth shut:
Research has shown that men stereotypically try to solve problems as quickly as possible when their mate confides in them; however this often leads to conflict because the confiding party feels "unheard". Sometimes a person just needs to vent and isn't necessarily seeking advice. Even if you know the answer, advice is often better-received once a person has shared some feelings.
If nothing else, wait for them to finish venting before offering advice (or asking if they want it). Sometimes the best way to figure something out is to do it on your own. Photo by Laughlin Elkind.
Differentiate Between Opinions, Expert Advice and Being a Sounding Board
Speaking of listening, it's also a good idea to figure out right away what your friends want from from you. Gil describes this as differentiating between opinions, expert advice and being a "sounding board":
Different situations require different approaches so we need to know what we should contribute. Opinions are good for subjective inquiries (for example, should I buy a MacBook or PC?). Expert advice should be limited to areas that you know very well and can offer well-informed opinions (for example, what makes for a good SSD for a MacBook?). Sometimes a person just needs us to listen and clarify things for them (for example, so you're saying that you're considering a MacBook because your iMac doesn't fit in your backpack). Whichever approach you take, make sure you don't present one type as another — don't present an opinion as expert advice.
Essentially, don't pretend like you know something you don't, and definitely don't act like you've been in a situation you haven't been in. Photo by Brendan Riley.
Minimise "You should..." Statements
Now that you know whether or not your friends or family actually want your advice, it's time to learn how to deal it out without sounding like a know-it-all. This is a lot harder than you might think. As Gil points out, one way to offer advice without sounding pretentious is to avoid "you should" statements:
"You should..." statements can come off as pretentious and judgmental at times. They can also make us responsible for any negative outcomes the advice seeker experiences. Using "I feel..." statements shares your idea while conveying the message that it's just the way you feel and up to the other party to take it as advice for a course of action. For example, don't say: "You should dump his cheating self." Do say: "When I hear you talking about his cheating, I feel like staying with him could lead to more headaches for you."
Gil's advice seems obvious, but it's incredibly easy to get on your high horse and use "you should" if you're not careful. By offering your opinion clearly defined as your opinion, you remove the insinuation that "you know best". Photo by a2gemma.
Accept That You Might Have to be a Jerk
Sometimes you do need to offer up some tough love. While you should still follow the practices mentioned above, when a situation warrants it, don't be afraid to be a bit of a jerk. Gil explains:
There are no "best practices" when talking about difficult topics and sometimes one HAS to come across as a bit of a jerk to get a point across to someone who is in denial or going in circles with their conversation.
Gil points out that this list isn't exhaustive, and every situation is a bit different. However, the key is to make sure you stay in "listening mode" for as long as possible, and you don't push your advice when it isn't wanted. If you approach it right, you should be able to help your friends or family without coming off as a know-it-all. Photo by Margaret Shear.