As humans we hate to feel helpless, so when we see someone struggling with something our instinctual response may be to offer them some advice. We also use this tactic when communicating when someone who has experienced some type of loss. It’s hard to know what to say in those situations, and “I’m sorry you’re going through this” may not seem like enough (but usually is). And this is when the unsolicited advice starts flowing. It’s almost always coming from a good place, but for some people, getting unsolicited advice is enough to send them into a spiral of rage. Here’s why and how to offer your input to others without making them hate you.
Why can unsolicited advice be so irritating?
Let’s say you’re someone with a chronic illness. Of course you’ve tried anything you can to make yourself feel better. So when someone says, “Well, have you tried [insert remedy]?” or “Have you considered doing [insert something related to treating and/or managing the condition]?” it can be incredibly frustrating. You know they’re trying to help, but all you hear is “Clearly you’re not smart enough to take care of yourself and do a basic Google search for treatments.”
If you’re someone who can’t help but offer their two cents, but who is also mindful that not everyone is open and receptive to hearing them, you may wonder how to go about offering your advice in a way that is actually helpful and not annoying. Though there is no surefire way of doing this — and every situation and relationship is different — Elizabeth Bernstein, who writes the “Bonds: On Relationships” column for the Wall Street Journal, has some suggestions.
Follow the 3 As
In a recent column, Bernstein recommends using the “3 As” (assess, ask, adjust) to determine whether or not to offer unsolicited advice in a situation. Here’s how to do that.
Before you even think about giving someone unsolicited advice, Bernstein says that you should start with an assessment of your feedback style. This involves talking to someone you know well and trust and has been on the receiving end of your feedback. Ask them for their feedback on how you give feedback. Maybe you’re doing it so often that people just tune you out. Or maybe your feedback comes across as passive aggressive. The point here is that you should first assess and examine your own approach to giving people (what you think is) helpful information.
If you’re dealing with a person who has not been receptive to your advice in the past, Bernstein suggests asking them what you’re doing wrong. What specifically about your advice or feedback makes them want to scream? Are they the type of person who hates all unsolicited advice under any circumstances, or is there a certain aspect of your advice that they find especially problematic? Ask the person for their advice on how you should approach these conversations moving forward.
Once you figure out the problem, adjust your approach. Be mindful that even with the best intentions, unsolicited advice can come across like criticism, Bernstein says, so pay attention to not just your words, but also your tone and delivery. She also points to a recent study that found that people are more likely to be receptive to advice or feedback when it focuses on what they should do in the future, rather than on what they did wrong in the past. In other words, choose your words, tone, and framing carefully.
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