Victoria Stokes discusses the problem with unsolicited 'help'.
Recently I read a tweet that completely changed the way I thought about advice and my impulse to give it: “’Do you want to vent or do you want advice?’ Just learning now, after 40 years on earth, that this might be the most important question to ask whenever a friend or loved one is upset.”
I’ve always considered myself an excellent advice giver. I want to help, so when friends come to me for a listening ear, I wrack my brains trying to think
of something useful to tell them. What nugget of wisdom could I proffer to
ease their burden? What would I do if I was in a similar situation? For most of us, giving advice is our first instinct and we feel truly redundant when there’s nothing we can do or say to help. It’s a natural impulse: A friend is in crisis so we soothe them by providing some wise words they can put into action, but is that advice always welcome, and the next time we feel the urge to dole out the advice bubbling up inside of us would we be better not to?
Advice culture has gone into overdrive recently. We scour the internet for the answers to our latest dilemmas, we seek out our closest pals to lament X,Y and Z, and you might even look for answers in these very pages. As the pace of life picks up and we’re faced with new and complex problems, the supposed solutions are flying at us from every angle.
You see it in the weight loss tips under a plus size model’s Insta pic, at the hairdressers when your stylist laments your split ends and at the gym when an unwelcome stranger critiques your form. You’ll even see it emblazoned across high street slogan tees telling you to ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ or professing ‘It is what it is’. Advice is everywhere, but as well intentioned as it may be, it’s not always helpful.
“Do you want to vent or do you want advice?” Just learning now, after 40 years on earth, that this might be the most important question to ask whenever a friend or loved one is upset.
— Jada Yuan (@jadabird) July 1, 2019
It can come across as patronising to the friend who has already exhausted all of those options, it can be insulting for the person who interprets your words of wisdom as proof that you think they simply aren’t trying hard enough, and where conflicting advice is concerned, it can make it hard for someone to block out all the white noise and focus on the quiet voice of their intuition.
I’ve definitely been on the receiving end of unwanted advice, and far from soothing me or providing me with a solution, it’s often made me feel critiqued. Sometimes unsolicited advice has the unintended effect of making a person feel like they’re the one to blame. ‘You just need to stand up for yourself more’ is one I hear often and though there may be some truth in that it takes the emphasis off the person who is doing me wrong and places the burden solely at my feet instead.
Likewise, a friend of mine remembers a time when she was single and how infuriating it was to be overloaded with unsolicited advice and opinions. “It seemed everyone had an idea how I could break free from this seemingly terrible fate of being on my own and more often than not, their advice was conflicting,” she explains.
“’You’ll find him when you stop looking’. ‘You’re not trying hard enough’. All these unwanted bits of feedback only served to make me feel like I was doing something wrong. Far from helping me, they made me feel stuck. Everyone had an idea about how I could magically change my circumstances and all that did was make me feel judged. I’d been given a list of things I ‘should’ do rather than getting what I needed from the conversation, which was empathy and a sympathetic ear.”
And that’s the problem, sometimes when we’re mid-crisis, we don’t want advice, we just want to feel heard. We want someone to say ‘ah, shit, that really sucks, I’m sorry.’ We don’t necessarily want to hear ‘That’s shit, let me fix it’ and actually, doing so often says more about the person dishing up the advice than it does the problem at hand. All of us like to feel like we’ve got our shit together and proffering unsolicited advice is a way to do that. The internet, as well as being the place we often go to glean the solutions to our problems, has also made us all experts and armchair psychologists.
We’ve found something that works for us and fulfilled our moral duty by passing it on to someone else, not realising that what works for you, might be useless, impossible or downright farcical for a friend. This reminds me of that scene in Sex and The City where Carrie professes ‘I don’t need therapy. I have you guys’ and Samantha quips back ‘We’re just as fucked up as you are. It’s like the blind leading the blind.’
It’s true, most of us don’t have the credentials to be doling out wanton advice. We’re all as lost as each other but we don’t want anyone else knowing that. We like the idea of people thinking we have our shit together and offering advice allows us to believe that we’re acing this thing called life more than we really are.
Recently I started thinking about how I could help a friend in need without offering up redundant bits of advice they don’t necessarily want or need, and I’ll admit, it’s hard. The impulse to scramble together a soothing piece of enlightenment is strong and without it it can feel like you aren’t doing much of anything to help them feel better.
When a friend comes to you with a problem, it’s almost automatic to offer your feedback but I’ve found a lot of nodding, sympathy and crucially asking if that person would like your advice and opinion is key. Instead of rushing to find the perfect thing to say, I started letting friends simply talk. Instead of offering advice, I started asking questions: ‘How does that make you feel?’ ‘What can I do to help?’
Huffington Post contributor Sezín Koehler writes about implementing this very tactic. “What a relief to let go of that cumbersome crutch of advice-giving and get down to the business of being an active and supportive friend, finding out what they need from me, not saddling them with what I think they need,” she enthuses.
“I found myself incredibly present in my conversations and interactions with others in a way I’d never been before. I was liberated from my self-imposed responsibility to help people who aren’t asking for assistance. I could just sit back, listen, empathise, and be there. Instead of the ‘You should do this…’ or ‘You need to do that…’ reflex I’d say, ‘I’m here for you, with whatever you need’, and, ‘How I can help?’”
So here’s my advice (ahem), if of course you want it. Next time you’re called upon as a shoulder to cry on, do your duty as a good friend, and listen. When they’ve vented and ranted and let it all out, stop to ask if they want your advice. Then, and only then can you know if your wise words would be truly welcome.