When Advice is Not the Answer

You say something with the best of intentions but it goes down like a beefburger at a vegan BBQ.

We can’t always control how our messages are heard: they become mangled in the ether but we can mitigate against a scalding response by delivering it in a certain way.

Think of the act of receiving advice, as an example. How many times have you been at least slightly ruffled by unsolicited guidance?  Take this example:

A woman and a man are talking after work. She complains about her day, he gives advice and she gets angry, exclaiming that he’s not listening or doesn’t understand her.

Men can be left bewildered in this type of scenario, and might well be thinking, or even saying: “Well why talk about a problem if you don’t want my advice?”

Learning when not to give advice

Now, here’s the secret code of conduct:

Women know how to deal with the problem, most of the time. That’s not why they’re talking. She’s complaining about her day to emotionally let off steam. So cutting in with advice, however well-intentioned and politely delivered, may be repelled as it seems patronising, unless you show a certain level of understanding before you offering guidance.

And this is not just a man-woman thing. It’s more general than that. Moreover, it can work the other way around. I’ve cut-in on the complaining of a range of males that I know or have come across, by proffering unsolicited advice, and my extensive research has yielded anger and frustration in 95% of cases. The others don’t count as they never listen anyway.

In these situations, when I switch to showing empathy, one of either two outcomes occurred:

  • my research subjects changed the subject. I even shut a barrister up. So an amazing result.
  • if empathy didn’t stop the conversation, it continued it. So this is where you have navigated the awkward first stage and can then work the conversation towards giving some useful and practical advice but don’t do that until you’ve read the next paragraph…

How to give advice

There are two really simple ways of delivering advice in an empathetic way that will be received well. The first is by asking a question or seeking permission to give advice. Secondly, telling a story takes away the assumption that the suggested action directly applies to their situation.

Example one:

  1. Ask a question/seek permission: “May I suggest something?”
  2. Give the advice
  3. Ask another question/seek approval: “Is that helpful?”, “Is there anything in there that you can use?”

Example two:

You can also use storytelling skills, so the conversation will look like this:

“Can I tell you about something that happened to…You may relate to this…”

In this scenario you’re not assuming that the story is anything like their situation.  After recounting the story, you can then add: “Do you relate to that?”  This gives the recipient the opportunity to take what’s relevant to them and applying it to their own situation.

In what specific ways would you apply this advice (!) specifically to your client and colleague relationships?

Get the help you need with your communication and storytelling skills with my communication skills courses and my storytelling for tech and business courses. Contact me today to find out more.

This article was originally published in May 2012 and was updated in October 2023.

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