Bad Ideas, Wisdom

Some Alarming Advice on Offering Advice

(About a 6 minute read)

It happens even to me now and then: Someone asks me for advice.  Usually, it’s a young man or woman, and it’s seldom a request for advice on anything so practical and necessary as whether to place one or two cherries in the whipped cream you’ve just sprayed on your belly in the possibly futile hope that your Fox-watching spouse might notice dessert has been served.

For the most part, the requests in my case are for advice on love, sex, relationships (of all kinds), and religion or “life philosophy”.  It doesn’t happen nearly as frequently as a preacher these days is caught professing “family values” while cheating on his wife of 20 years with a 16 year-old choir girl, but it does happen often enough that I am no longer wholly flattered by it.

Nowadays, it is more likely to cause me a little anxiety than it is to pleasantly charm my raging ego.  I suppose it might be a bit silly of me to take giving advice so seriously that I feel anxious it might be the wrong or poor advice, but there you have it, anyway.

Of course, I’ve also been present when someone has asked someone else — or even asked the whole room — for advice.  That’s allowed me to notice something.  A lot of advice really is wrong or of poor quality.  And I think we should be surprised by that.

Surprised because so very often it is evident that the person offering the advice is both well-meaning and doing the best they can to offer good advice.  Yet, neither one of those things is enough.

So I thought I would see if I could get a conversation with you going on this blog about both the most common mistakes people make when giving advice, and about what makes for good advice.

Near as I myself have seen, the single most frequent mistake people made is to assume that every request for advice is genuine.  In my experience, the contrary is much more apt to be true.  Most people who ask for advice are really just asking for a chance to vent their problems.

Whether or not you think there’s anything wrong with that is your own business, of course, but I find it a waste of time to ponder what to tell them.  Instead, I just ask a few questions about the things they’re talking about to keep the conversation going and to help them vent.

The second most frequent mistake is more alarming — and can sometimes have serious consequences, I think.  That mistake is made when we offer perfectly good advice — but to the wrong person.  In other words, we rush to hand them an off-the-rack suit that poorly fits them, rather than tailor our advice to their specific selves and situations .

It pays off tremendously to hesitate to offer anything before we’ve asked enough relevant questions to make sure we exactly understand them and their situation.

Now, I once saw a young woman ask a small group of three or four people “What do boys want?”, which is in my experience the possibly charming way at least some young women raise the issue of how they can best find a boy who will love them and/or appreciatively savage their tender bodies.  The responses to her question were instructive.

I think the best response was, “What type of boy are you looking for?”  The person who asked that was at least clued into the fact she was asking how to find a boyfriend.  But the other responses were either humorous, philosophical, or both.  “They just want you to shut up and spread your legs.  If you don’t accept that, no one will take an interest in you.  Sorry, Steph, that’s the way it is.”

Which is damn poor advice in my opinion.  But even the best advice that was given that day seemed to me to start off on the wrong foot.  In my crazy opinion, it emphasized the wrong thing.  Granted, the type of boy a girl is interested in is key, but what a girl should be asking herself first and foremost is this:  Who am I?  What are my needs? What are my desires?  How willing am I to compromise on those?

You see, unless she knows the answers to those questions, she might not really know what type of boy she should want.

The take-away here is the group overall either did not quite grasp what the girl really needed, or they essentially (and a callously) blew off their friend’s request for help.  (All except me, of course.  I simply shouted, “Me! Me!  Pick me!” — which is the best I’ve ever come up with for a creative pick-up line.) Perhaps they would not have done either if they’d only taken a few moments to sound her out about exactly what she already knew to do or not do.

Another key to giving good advice is closely related to the second guideline, but bears being emphasized on its own.  Namely that we should be very careful not to simply assume what works for you (and others) will work for them, but rather sound them out well enough to know what they themselves are capable of doing.

A boy once asked a group of us how to get laid. Now that’s a huge question that does not have an answer. Instead, there are at least two dozen answers to it — enough to fill a book.  So the first question that comes to mind here is “Where to start?  What does he already know, and what is the very next step that he needs to know?”

Unfortunately for the boy in this case, no one sounded him out on those things before jumping in with all sorts of recommendation, most of them — as it turned out — absurdly advanced for him — as if you were to give a calculus test to a pre-schooler.

Now the last thing to mention here before turning the conversation over to you is the necessity of being modest when giving advice. By that I mean, we should impress upon the person that we could be wrong (even if we “know” we’re not), and that he or she must take the responsibility of weighing and perhaps testing our advice before fully committing to it.

The reason this is necessary — rather than merely optional — is because it’s the decent thing to do.  We simply do not know for certain what’s going to happen to them when they implement our advice.  Even the best advice has a tendency to go wrong, just as the best plans do.  And if our advice does indeed go wrong, it’s not us who will suffer for it.

So far I think we have arrived at four solid guidelines to giving advice:

First, recognize that not everyone who asks for advice really means it (Most just want to vent).

Second, sound out what the person asking for advice really needs help with before offering him or her our choice words of wisdom.

Third, find out what the person is capable of doing first before we then tell him or her what to do.

Fourth, be sure to impress upon the person that our advice could go wrong for them, and that hence they should exercise due care and caution when implementing it.

I can think of about ten or a dozen other things that we should do when offering advice. But rather than run this post into the length of a summer bestseller, I turn the conversation over to you.  All comments, wise or foolish, right or wrong, will further our conversation and are perfectly acceptable and welcome except for anything the annoying Teresums says, of course.

5 thoughts on “Some Alarming Advice on Offering Advice”

  1. You sort of addressed this in saying that we need to tailor advice to the person asking for it, but I would just point out further that we tend to advise based on what we ourselves would do in any given situation, which may or may not be useful or appropriate for the other person. BUT, what if what the person wants is, in fact, to do what you would do, because they respect the way you handle yourself in such situations? How do you gauge whether the person wants personally tailored advice that makes the most sense for them versus advice that allows them to imitate your own behavior, which they admire?


    1. “…we tend to advise based on what we ourselves would do in any given situation, which may or may not be useful or appropriate for the other person.”

      Spot on! I’m so glad you brought that up! I see that dozens of times each year, it’s such a common thing for people to do. It makes me suspect there’s something of the herd animal behind it.

      You ask, “…what if what the person wants is, in fact, to do what you would do, because they respect the way you handle yourself in such situations?” That’s a good question, and I’ve actually been a few times in just such a situation.

      What I have always chosen to do is to discourage the person from simply following my example. Failing that, I have emphasized to them that it’s their responsibility to weigh my example to see if it fits them. That I will take no blame if things go wrong for them.

      What do you yourself do?

      Thank you so much for your insights!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Honestly, I hadn’t thought too hard about it before! I think in most situations I made the assumption that the person was asking me, specifically, because they wanted to do what I would do, and I gave my advice based on that. Now I will be thinking harder about the way I give advice.


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