Stop giving unsolicited advice at work

Allow yourself to be a “guide on the side.” When leaders allow their employees to come to their own conclusions and solutions, they build employee confidence and support their learning.

As a teenager, my daughter used to joke and sassily tell me, “You’re not the boss of me!” As a parent of a strong-willed child, I learned quickly that ordering her around was not the most effective parenting technique. Similarly, bossing around colleagues or people on your team is not an effective leadership technique either.

Most people do not want to be told what to do. While the giver of advice often has the best intentions, we tend to resist these opinions because it makes us feel like we are losing control and power over our own situation. Psychologists use the term reactance to describe our response to the perceived loss of freedom we experience when given direct, unsolicited advice. Instead of expanding possibilities, many people offer advice in a way that contracts our options (and frankly, makes us angry). They say things like:

  • “You should do this” … which really means, “There is only one choice, and it’s not yours.”
  • “You need to just (quit your job, leave your partner, move to a new city, etc.).” This one always comes across as an easy solution to what is usually a complex problem. It leaves us feeling frustrated, with a desire to end the conversation.
  • “Have you tried this? It worked great for me.” Maybe you have tried the solution offered and maybe you haven’t, but either way, this lecture makes you want to do the opposite. One impact of psychological reactance is just this — we want to act in a way that is different from the recommendation in order to regain control.
  • “If only you had listened to me in the first place.” This statement will shut people down and destroy trust.
  • “You’ll be fine,” “This too shall pass,” “You are never given more than you can handle,” or “It’s all OK.” These statements diminish the pain and struggle someone is going through, and the advice in these elements, while well-intentioned, is often premature in the process.

All these statements leave the receiver of unsolicited feedback feeling incompetent, unskilled and wrong, no matter what they choose to do about their challenging situation. We resist advice sometimes to our own detriment, yet it continues to feel like our way of reclaiming a sense of power and control.

In coaching, we teach that everyone is capable, resourceful and whole. If we, as leaders, teachers, parents and spouses, believe that to be true and embody it, imagine how differently we would show up in our conversations. We often give unsolicited advice because we want to help. However, we also offer it because we think our answer is best or we believe the other person is not able to solve their own problems. Often, unsolicited advice is more about the giver of advice than the receiver, as it increases the giver’s sense of power.

Here are some tips to offer advice in a way that is helpful and not damaging to the person or the relationship.

1. Listen with compassion and empathy.

Too often, we jump to conclusions and offer our solutions before we have a true sense of what someone is experiencing. People want to feel heard and understood. Listening allows you to do this. In health care, Compassionomics speaks to the benefits for both the giver and receiver when we infuse empathy into our communication. When we can listen and respond appropriately to another person’s suffering, we deepen trust and bring forward strength in the other.

2. Let people vent (without inserting your two cents).

Sometimes, we all just need to vent. We might know we made a stupid decision, but we certainly do not need to be reminded of it. We are often fully aware of the difficulty we have gotten ourselves into or the challenges we are experiencing, and having someone shake a finger in our face is not helpful. Allowing people to vent in a safe space is highly therapeutic and often leads us to new answers and insights.

3. Ask powerful questions.

Asking meaningful questions allows people to come to their own solutions. Here are some examples of powerful questions to ask when you are trying to assist someone in a challenging situation:

  • What do you need from me right now?
  • What are the various options you are considering? Are there others we could brainstorm together?
  • If you could do it over again, what would you do the same or differently?
  • What do you want most from the situation? What are your hopes and fears?

4. Get permission before giving advice or feedback.

Resist the urge to spout your wisdom. If you truly believe you have advice that might be useful, ask permission to share it and allow the person to honestly answer “no” if they are not in the mood for advice. Consider saying, “I’ve been through something similar. Can I tell you about what worked for me?” Then give your advice with no strings attached and no expectation that the person will take it.

5. If you are asked for advice, be conscious of how you deliver it.

You might start by saying, “I trust you are strong and will figure this out, but here are some of my thoughts.” Offer advice as an option, not the only choice. Be sensitive to the other person’s needs, and watch their body language. Pay attention and engage differently if you see people pulling away.

Giving unsolicited advice, as tempting as it is, rarely assists people in finding a better solution. Allow yourself to be a “guide on the side” if you really want to help. When leaders allow their employees to come to their own conclusions and solutions, they build employee confidence and support their learning.