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The Best Advice that No One Listens To

No one cares about your advice – listen.

By Gustavo Razzetti

November 29, 2018

Why Unsolicited Feedback Often Backfires

If you're like me, you probably love helping others. It's gratifying to lend a hand to a friend, family member, colleague, or even strangers. Helping others is not only good for others – and the right thing to do – but it also makes us happier and healthier.

Altruistic behavior releases endorphins in the brain and boosts our happiness. Helping others activates the areas of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust. Researchers call it the “helper’s high.”

That uplift can be tricky, though ¬– it can quickly turn an altruistic act into an ego-booster.

That’s why we all love giving unsolicited advice. Nothing can beat the feeling of the helper’s high. It boosts our confidence, making us think we have the perfect solution to every problem – except our own.

Anthony de Mello put it bluntly: “Charity is really self-interest masquerading under the form of altruism. I give myself the pleasure of pleasing others.”

That’s why most unsolicited feedback is useless. It pleases the giver more than the receiver. The best advice lies in the eye of the beholder. Consider other people’s expectations, not your gratification.

People Want You to Listen, Not to Talk

“Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.” ― Robert Frost

Everyone needs help to solve their problems. However, that doesn’t mean they’re willing to follow (or even open to listen to) your recommendations.

When someone has a problem, we feel the urge to heroically help others. I know, it’s tempting. We see others as victims that we can rescue with our ideas: “You should do X” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” How can we avoid falling into this trap and stop jumping into “fixing mode”?

I have to remind myself continually: unsolicited advice doesn’t work.

I fall into the trap quite easily – I only realize it when I’m halfway through sharing unsolicited advice that no one wants to hear.

Increasing my self-awareness in this area has not been easy. I still have the tendency to offer a solution. Refraining from doing that requires a lot of conscious effort. “Is it vital that I speak?” I think twice before I say something. Counting up to ten helps me stop the urge to provide an answer.

Finding balance is a never-ending act. Sometimes, I go to the other extreme and stay completely silent.

Don’t spam people with your words of wisdom.

Offering something that people did not request is intrusive. Your advice can end up in the junk box. Keep this in mind when you're giving advice – that your help is free doesn’t mean others want it.

Getting into someone else’s business is a delicate  undertaking. When we talk using absolute statements, people feel judged.

When people open the door of their confidence, tread carefully. You could jeopardize the trust that person has in you. If you jump too fast to a conclusion, people will feel your advice is irrelevant to their situation. Or, even worse, a friend or colleague could think you don’t know them that well.

If someone says they want to talk to you, clarify expectations.

Why do they want to talk to you? What kind of help do they need? Are they looking for a sounding board, someone to bounce ideas with, or ideas? In most cases, when people say they want to talk it's because they want to do the talking. Your role is to listen, not to take over with your advice.

Your advice only works when someone asks for it.

Unsolicited advice often seems judgmental rather than helpful, making people feel criticized or corrected.

It’s disrespectful and arrogant to voice your opinions and ideas when they aren't wanted. Unsolicited advice can convey an air of superiority – that only you know what’s right or best for the other person.

A study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin showed that giving advice is connected to power – those who want to feel in charge give advice very often.

Women are more likely to receive unsolicited advice – they’re victims of mansplaining (a term inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s critique of men who unnecessarily explain things to women)

We are wired to believe that people open their hearts because they need our help. If someone shares a situation they’re facing, that doesn’t mean they want advice from you. Don’t jump to that conclusion.

Some folks just want to talk.

Sharing their issues helps most people release the pain. Others like to think while they talk to see things in perspective. Effective conversations provide clarity – open-ended questions are more helpful than cheap advice.

Supporting others is the best help we can provide. If your partner is going through hard times, lend them your ear, not your advice. If a colleague wants to vent, simply make space for them.

No One Cares About Your Advice

“If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.” — Confucius

People don’t care about your advice – or mine.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your advice is wisdom. You can share your experiences or knowledge, but you can’t impart insight . Wisdom can’t be taught – it’s a personal quest. Only through our own experiences, by learning to cope with life challenges, do we become wise.

By trying to be the smartest person in the room, we create more damage.

No one wants to be reminded of their weaknesses, especially during harsh times. When you behave like a know-it-all, you make others feel more miserable.

Knowledge blindness makes us feel overconfident until others prove us wrong.

Most consultants, coaches, and writers suffer from “illusory superiority.” It happens to me, too. The belief  that we’re smarter than we actually are in reality is a prevalent cognitive bias: the “Dunning–Kruger effect.”

I see this a lot when coaching teams  –  managers want to have all the answers. They act like heroes who want to save the day. Even if they have good intentions, heroic managers end up hurting their teams. Great managers lead with questions, not perfect answers.

J.R.R. Tolkien said it best, “Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill.”

People don’t need a superhero when they're suffering. Empathy is your best superpower. There’s a thin line between trying to help and having all the answers. We should purposefully avoid crossing it , especially when writing about giving advice. 🙂

Don’t Think or Judge, just Listen

"It takes a great person to be a great listener." – Calvin Coolidge

Sometimes, the best advice you can give is not to provide any at all.

Staying silent is more effective than providing unsolicited advice.

Be a helper, not a hero. Focus on listening and understanding what’s going through the other person’s mind. It’s better to be a good listener than to give advice no one will follow.

Practice walking in the other person’s shoes rather than expecting others to walk in yours.

Listen with an open mind. Staying silent is not enough. You can’t help someone if, deep inside, you’re judging their emotions or reactions.

Advice-giving requires walking on eggshells. If your coworker is unhappy with their job or your best friend is going through a breakup , avoid taking sides. People could think you're judgmental.

Understanding others is critical  –  when people feel attacked, they stop listening.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, “Advice is like snow — the softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and the deeper it sinks into the mind.”

Your role is not to impose your perspective but to help people find a solution that works for them. Provoke reflection and understanding — learn to ask beautiful questions, as I wrote here.

What if They Ask for Advice?

"Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.”— Jimi Hendrix

Here are some ways to help others once they’ve requested your advice.

1. Clarify expectations

When someone asks for your help or says they want to talk to you, clarify what they want from you. You don’t need to be overly explicit but asking, “Sure, what kind of help do you need?” will help you realize clear expectations.

2. Listen first

Silence your advice.

Don’t ask questions yet, even if you don’t understand all the details. Let the other person unload their emotions and issues first. You can take notes or write down questions so you don’t get distracted.

3. Help with questions

Providing clarity is the best advice. “What’s going on? What’s the challenge you're facing?” is a great way to start.

Invite reflection with more questions:

What’s getting in the way?

What have you tried already?

What are you afraid of?

What’s the worst thing that could happen?

What else?

Open questions invite participation — there’s no right or wrong answer.

4. Reframe the problem

Before discussing a course of action, the person must understand what the real problem is. We often confuse frustrations with the issue at hand and get stuck fixing the symptoms rather than addressing the root cause.

Reframe the problem with an emphasis on the outcome. Invite people to reflect on what they want to achieve beyond simply solving a problem. Ask, “What would you like to happen?”

5. Brainstorm together

Have a conversation rather than a monologue.

Silent brainstorming not only levels the field for introverts but also invites reflection, meaning you don’t rush into providing advice. Take a couple of minutes so everyone can write their ideas silently, then share with each other. Let the other person build on your ideas and vice versa.

Invite them to challenge your solutions.

6. Provide options, not one solution

“This is what you need to do…” is how conversations get stuck. Acting from an “Illusory Superiority” disengages other people. Find several options rather than pushing for the one you like most.

Encourage the other person to evaluate the pros and cons. Invite them to reflect, not just react. Solutions should be evaluated through the eyes of the other person, not yours.

7. Avoid the trap of “If I were you”

Problems are personal – you can never experience what other people are going through. Empathy doesn’t mean you can anticipate how people will behave. One situation can trigger multiple reactions , so don’t assume others see life through your same lens.

The same applies to finding the right solution. Someone else, not you, is facing the problem. Even if they ask you what you would do, resist the temptation. Help your colleague find the solution that works for them.

Giving Advice – Putting It All Together

People want to talk to you, not listen to your advice. Don’t assume they're looking for you to say something. Unsolicited advice doesn’t work. Bite your tongue.

Paying attention is the best help you can offer. Listen to others. Ask questions. Help people find a solution that will work for them.

No one pays attention to unsolicited advice but everyone will appreciate your full attention.

What do you think?

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