Why Does Advice Sometimes Backfire?
I try to spend a little time during the week reading in my favorite magazines or news stories that peak my interest. This week, I found one that hits home as it’s close to something I posted on FB a few weeks ago concerning how we sometimes make assumptions about other people’s lives.
“Giving unsolicited advice is what causes problems. Advice is often preceded by a judgment or an evaluation—which is based on our interpretation of a person or situation. Although you may sincerely intend to help or assist someone, giving unsolicited advice sends a variety of underlying messages which are all based on assumptions, and which are almost always perceived as negative to the person receiving the unwanted advice. As a result, advice often comes across as judgmental, authoritative, or self-serving.
When we give unsolicited advice, the judgmental assumption is, “You can’t figure this out on your own,” or “I don’t trust you to figure it out.”
The authoritative assumption is, “I know better than you,” or “I know and you don’t, so I have to tell you.”
The self-serving assumption is, “I need to give you the benefit of my advice to validate or to prove to myself how smart I am.” or worse “I need to tell you what to do, so I can be the hero that saved you from yourself.”
As a result, your judgement manifests through your advice and is often taken as a slight or insult, causing hurt feelings within the one you’re trying to help.”
If you want to help someone you care about, simply tell them that you’re thinking of them, you’re sending thoughts and prayers; and ask if there’s anything you can do, for them to please let you know. But don’t make assumptions about what they need or want.
Often we think what others are going through, are the same things or very similar situations that we ourselves have gone through. And that results in giving others the benefit of our experience through advice. The problem is, you really can’t assume they’ve gone through what you have, because their entire life experience is different from yours. Nor can you make the assumption that your experience covered all the same variables their situation has entailed. Otherwise you might be assuming you know all there is know about their life or situation.
People never tell their friends everything they’re going through. No matter how close you maybe to them. We all hold something back, often times, something we’re ashamed of or embarrassed about. There maybe no reason for that feeling, or that understanding could be totally wrong. But without knowing their entire story, you may not understand why they feel that way. That’s where the experiences in our individual lives come into play. Our perspectives today are molded and formed by our experiences through out our lifetime. Two woman facing divorce may be experiencing a similar set of circumstances. Both need a lawyer, both need a clear set of rules or agreements to manage a separation and division of property. But each one maybe facing a completely different set of issues based on the reason for the divorce. One could be facing physical domestic abuse, while the other maybe facing a sense of growing apart and a mutually agreed to dissolution of their relationship. Would you be giving the same advice to both women, if you didn’t know the cause of their divorce? Maybe not.
Your suggestion, no matter how concerning, could be reminding them of resources they don’t have and haven’t had for a while. Take a case of someone who has lost their job and is struggling financially. The stress and strain over time can be overwhelming. They may just need a break for a few hours to recoup and regain some hope. What would your advice be? “Why don’t you just get out for a while and go to a movie or take a drive”. Now that sounds like nice advice, an encouragement to change your scenery and relax for a little bit. But if the person you’re talking to is facing financial constraints, exactly how do you expect them to take a drive, which costs gas, or bus fare, and go to a movie, which again, assumes they have the money for a ticket into the theater. All you could be doing is making them feel even worse about their situation.
Or you might be suggesting something they tried a very long time ago to no avail. During the 2008 Recession, while people were losing their homes, there was a lot of advice out there. And just as many programs to try to help people facing foreclosure. People would read a story in the paper and assume that suggestion would be beneficial to the family or friends they knew in the same situation. They’d file that story away in the back of their head until the next time they talked to the person in need. But by that time, the person facing foreclosure had already gone through the evaluation process to see if they qualified for the program. Your unsolicited advice could be suggesting that they’ve done nothing to help their situation. They’ve just been sitting on their hands, waiting for a miracle to happen. Really? Would you be sitting there doing nothing to save your house? Even if that’s not your intended suggestion, someone who is under that kind of pressure could easily perceive that’s what you meant. I’ve seen it happen many times. It’s not necessarily logical, but everyone handles emotional trauma in different ways.
You never know what’s going on in someone else’s life, behind the scenes or within their heart or head. So you can’t assume you know how they will perceive your advice or what impact it may have on their psyche.
That goes for all advice, that spans the spectrum of daily life. From dealing with a troubled person, heart-break, a cold or medical condition or a struggle that rings true and hits home in your life. You don’t know what they’re going through or what they’ve already done to remedy the situation. So don’t assume they haven’t already tried the solutions you saw on some news program, 3 months ago, on some tv show.
You never know what’s going on in someone else’s life. It’s worth it to keep in mind the old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover”. Let me share a real life situation.
The other day at my son’s school, a lady was in the administrator’s office, letting the admins know she had a new phone number. Her new cell phone was a very nice new model and she was rather proud of it. Another woman sitting in the waiting area next to yet another mother, said quietly under her breath “if she can afford a $300 cell phone, why can’t she pay for her son’s lunches? I know for a fact she’s getting free lunches.”
The woman with the new phone didn’t hear the comment and continued talking to the admins with a happy tone in her voice. The admin asked the excited mom what kind of phone it was, just making conversation. The mother said the brand and model and added “It’s the latest and greatest”. Then she explained, it’s for my husband’s business and I’ll be answering the phones for him. We haven’t been able to afford a second phone for a while, but AT&T sent him a letter in an effort to continue his contract that ran out 6 months ago. They had offered a free upgrade as an enticement. We went to the store and showed letter to the sales people and they asked what we wanted? She said “What can I get?” and the sales guy said whatever you want. She named the phone she dreamed of having and he said ok. So she got her $300 phone for free. Good for her.
The women sitting in the waiting area heard this and the one who listened to the negative nasty judgement of the other mother said “You should never judge other people, especially when you don’t know their whole story.” She got up and moved away from the nasty negative woman.
What you see in other people, doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s happening in their life. As individuals, we create 3 presentations of ourselves, you might think of this as 3 different masks we wear. There’s the mask we present to the outside world. The mask we show only to those who are closest to us, and then there’s the mask we show to ourselves.
You can see someone who takes a shower everyday, dresses nicely and carries them self with confidence and/or humility and think they have no problems in their life. Not a care in the world, or a single thing going on that may be stressful. Because that’s the mask they want to show to the world. And that might be exactly what they want you to think. They don’t want you to know the water is being turned off on Monday, or the electricity is being canceled next week, or there’s nothing in their house to eat when they get home. Maybe those lunches their son is getting at school for free are the ONLY meals he’ll have that day.
So when you sit with someone and hear their story about the trials they are facing, don’t make the assumption you know everything they’re going through. Or you know everything they’ve done to remedy that situation. Your assumptions about what you’ve seen, could be the furthest thing from the truth.
So keep your advice to yourself unless you’re asked for it. Now that’s what not to do. Here’s what you can do. If you’ve gone through something similar, talk about your own experience. For instance, “A few years ago when I was in the hospital, without insurance, they told me about a patient benefits manager that I might talk to. They sent her to my hospital room and she talked to me about the different insurance programs I might qualify for. She helped me fill out the paperwork for the state Medicaid program and told me she would attach the necessary medical files from my hospital visit to the application. Within 3 months, I was covered and it really lifted a weight off my shoulders”
In other words, tell your story, and perhaps there’s something in your experience that might be inspiring or it might give someone in need, an idea for resolving their own hardship. You are giving them encouragement, without judgement, without being authoritative, and without being self-serving. You’re only telling your story and sharing your sympathy and compassion for their situation. You might be surprised at how far a little commiseration can go.
© 2014 Springwolf, D.D., Ph.D. Springwolf Reflections / Springs Haven, LLC. All Rights Reserved.