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Giving Unsolicited Advice: How to Avoid the Trap

Woman in blazer talking with another woman during counseling.

One time, I said to the kids: “Would you like some unsolicited advice?” The eldest replied, “Well, we’re probably gonna get it whether we want to or not.”  Yikes! So true! But my “better self” knows that giving unsolicited advice to clients — or anyone — isn’t a good idea. Here’s how I try to heed my “better self” approach.

Recognize the “decoding”

I may think I am encoding my message as “advice.” But the trouble is, it can often be decoded as criticism.

In his book, How to Really Love Your Adult Child, Dr. Ross Campbell says that unsolicited advice is always received as criticism.

Go to the honest planet

Did that person ask for my advice? If so, I’m probably in the clear. But what we’re talking about here is unsolicited advice.

Regi Campbell takes this a step further. He referred to himself as “The Vice President of Advice” because of his willingness to dish it out. His wife corrected him saying, “No, you’re the President of Advice!”

What title would others give me (or you?) when we start giving unsolicited advice to clients? Hmmmm???

Use the 10:1 Rule

Some might argue that the 10:1 rule is really the 1:16 rule or however you’ve heard it. Okay.

But here’s my point: If I’m trying to help these people, I try to slather on 10 positive comments before giving the criticism — er, um, I mean, “advice.”

I don’t want the listener to go away feeling badly about themselves.

Ask questions

Doing non-invasive, respectful questioning helps to avoid the trap of advice-giving.

My fellow business coach and friend Glen Stevens pointed me to a fabulous bunch of questions that were devised by Mac Lake.

  • The reporter
  • The fisherman
  • The physician
  • The pilot
  • The contractor

Give “I” messages

Sure, we’ve all heard this principle a million times. But it bears repeating:

“When you …, I feel …”

I offer consulting services for colleagues who hire me to edit their books, articles, and more. What I want to say to the author:

“Stop using so many words. It costs you more paper and ink and it’s hard for other people to read those super long gloppy sentences.”

A better way to handle it would be:

“When you write super long sentences, I feel confused, and then I end up having to read the sentence again. And, the SEO gods favor sentences that have fewer than 20 words.”

If the advice isn’t related to your actions or your feelings about the situation, this won’t work.

Beware of the curse of knowledge

Sometimes, we just plain know too much. I can easily launch into giving unsolicited advice to clients without ever hearing myself do it.

On an almost daily basis, I find myself tempted to tell someone everything I’ve ever learned in my entire career. And make no mistake, I want to “fix it”! I’m a Fixer!

You can guess what happens. They tune me out.

Think about Rubin’s Four Tendencies

In her book, Gretchen Rubin describes The Four Tendencies, and how they affect the listener’s perceptions. I’ve talked more about that here.

Of those, the Rebels are the least receptive. Fortunately, Rubin gives some practical advice for how to deal with the Rebel.

Be especially respectful of Ennea #3Type

I’m big on psychological inventories and indicators. I’ve been certified in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator™ for about 30 years. I am hoping to become certified in the Enneagram Typology too. I could talk all day long about those and the CliftonStrengths, the Working Genius, the Kolbe A Index™, and more.

But let me address the Enneagram for a moment. Those who are probably the most resistant to advice are the Ennea #3s.

If you tell them what they did wrong, their instinct is to feel defensive, offended, and inadequate. Instead, try helping the to explore alternative ways to meet their goals.

Get helpful resources

Sometimes we can avoid bad habits by learning more and developing new skills. Consider books like Crucial Conversations.

In earlier posts I addressed the differences between teaching and counseling, as well as words to avoid when counseling.  If you’re the receiver, I’ve talked about dealing with criticism. It’s most important to have good communication skills in order to have the most effect with your clients.

Giving unsolicited advice to clients can be a real trap! But it is avoidable.

How do you avoid giving unsolicited advice? What methods do you find most useful? Share your tips in the comments below!

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