Our desire to give unsolicited advice is a lot like having explosive diarrhoea: crap just gushes out before you can contain it. When a friend struggles with something health related, you might feel a moral obligation to swoop to his side, usually by asking "Have you tried…?" After all, health is important, and we all need to make sure we've got each other's back...right?
Illustration by Tina Mailhot-Roberge.
I used to be that person, so I get it. Whenever someone came down with a health- or fitness-related "problem," I'd hit it with baseless "solutions" that I was all too eager to share, without really hearing what the person was saying, like so:
- Have an upset stomach but already took OTC medicine? "Have you tried taking Pepto-Bismol?"
- Dealing with a cranky knee? "Hmm, have you tried stretching? That usually does the trick for me."
- Weight loss not going anywhere? "Have you tried not eating so much and moving more?"
I'd get so frustrated whenever I tried to get on my soapbox about eating and exercising right, because my friends never listened. Healthy living seemed so simple. I thought if it's possible for me and so many others, then anyone should be able to do it. They just need someone smart to come tell them what to do.
Have You Heard of the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
In 2005, I had my health "ah-ha moment" — the epiphany that makes you see healthy living in a whole different light because you've made change happen and now you want to bring that change to the world, dammit.
This ah-ha moment will be unique for everyone, but because of my own experiences I was fairly certain counting calories and an obsession with doing endurance events could do no wrong for anyone. But many more years of being in the industry flipped my entire perspective on its head. I had been an arrogant dummy. I suffered from the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias that essentially makes people like me believe they are a lot smarter than they actually are. (Some day I'll probably look back at this moment and still facepalm.)
I'm not alone here. The Dunning-Kruger effect is rampant among health and fitness enthusiasts (and even professionals) in particular. We tend to be pretty confident in our existing breadth of knowledge, snickering at others for their ignorance, but in reality, there's a lot we don't know.
Which isn't surprising: health and fitness are already confusing enough, thanks to a disconnect between media and science, decades of malignant marketing, and the sheer volume of information available. You can see how easy it is for bogus health information to proliferate.
As a professional forum and comment lurker, I often see commenters repeating disproven information, or worse, spreading downright crazy talk and potentially harmful information. A lot of them quickly devolve into people mocking one another with: "Do you even lift?" or "Do you even science?" to imply the other person probably couldn't find his own butthole if he tried. But no one truly wins.
Of course, these delusions of superiority aren't exclusive to internet culture. You ever overhear the most trite conversations that make you want to vomit? Just hang out in the gym locker room. You could hear the most bizarre advice, which usually gets tempered with "...it worked for me." That, by the way, is a form of anecdotal evidence, which tends to have very little to no scientific backing (but can at least help suggest a new hypothesis for the scientific method).
In gyms, I've seen people straight up interrupt another person's workout to inform them that they're doing things wrong (ladies, you might know what I'm talking about). Never mind the fact that in 99.9% of these cases it's really none of their business.
Of course, all these people think they're doing you a favour. And hey, maybe you've even been one of them from time to time. I know I have.
Just Shut Up and Listen
Now I know better. I've learned that in most cases, my intention to educate comes off as annoying, not helpful.
The other day, when I told someone how I'd been wrestling with some out-of-the-ordinary cravings (like an egg and bacon scramble wrapped in a waffle and topped with syrup) but refused to indulge at the time, he suggested to me that I just — I shit you not — chew my food and spit it back out. What in the...I wasn't looking for any crazy disordered eating advice. I just wanted to vent!
I notice the same thing elsewhere. We all just want to provide fix-it advice at the first sign of trouble when the person struggling so desperately just wants to commiserate.
On the chance that a friend is specifically asking for health and fitness advice, I've learned that she has likely already done a fair amount of research on her own and latched on to certain philosophies (like Paleo, for example). Further likely: any additional (unsolicited) input from me would only confuse her, or worse, possibly make her feel incompetent. Studies on reactions to unsolicited advice suggest what we already know deep down inside: people don't like to hear advice they don't need or can't immediately apply. In fact, this intrusion makes them more likely to contradict your good-willed advice.
People Don't Seem Interested in Real Talk Anyway
Even when my friends and family assail me with questions like, "What's the best way to lose belly fat?" or "What should I eat to lose weight?", I dread responding to them.
Since science has yet to figure out how to make me invisible, though, I break down and offer simple goals for them to aim for, then I'm immediately reminded why I've stopped doing it. If I don't blow their mind with juicy industry secrets or hold their hand every step of the way, I can see their interest just pretty much melt off their face. So, why bother?
In yet other experiences, some pose questions with the intention to slap me with studies and articles they have read. Some are valid, of course, but many people don't seem to understand that scientific research often takes place in tightly controlled laboratory settings with certain limitations to study very few variables, or that biology doesn't work in isolation. When I explain this, they look as if I'd just shot their dog.
My New Approach: More Empathy, Less Talking
I've started to understand that assumptions about everyone having equal opportunity for health aren't just wrong, they're downright insulting. What's easy for me isn't necessarily easy for someone else. We all are subject to our different environments, finances, resources and life circumstances. It's just not my place to intervene without their asking or knowing any information on their background. They have probably already tried my suggestion or aren't able to do it.
Hearing my unsolicited advice is the last thing anyone needs. Advice can only go so far (and rarely does it go far at all).
Instead of talking someone's face off about your latest health epiphany, be empathetic, see where they're coming from, and learn from every interaction, even if you think you've already got things figured out. Instead of the banal "Have you tried…" approach, opt for "What have you tried that worked for you?" to help them reach their own epiphany. This is within anyone's power to do! (Admittedly, this is pretty damn difficult. It took me a long time of biting my tongue and concentrating on the conversation so much that it even started to creep the other person out.)
We're all passionate about health, but in my experience, passion and a desire to help don't sway anyone. You can't fix everyone's health problems like marketing companies and liars believe they can, but you can be supportive, point them to reliable resources, as well as scrupulous experts, and let them vent if they want to. Then, little by little, you might find that people help themselves out of their health funk — and you got to do your part without being that person.