The Art of Saving Grace

 

Dr. Natalie Flatt Ph.D, Connect Psych Services

 

We all have those moments in our lives where we are placed in a situation where family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues and even strangers will provide you unwelcome advice. I feel like I’ve had my fair share of that over the years – how to have a baby, how to raise a child, where to send them to school, how to provide the best nutrition, where I should invest money into, how to treat illnesses or how to cope when you are ‘just having a bad day?’. Add the use of technology into the equation, advice can turn into a very blunt and ambiguous statement when used inappropriately.

 

Certain unwelcome feedback can bring you down if you let it, along with bring up emotional responses such as anger, fear, irritation or anxiety.

Why do people give unwanted advice?

People who repeatedly give unwanted advice can be well-meaning and genuinely want to help. Nonetheless there are times where a deeper, more personal issue of validation or power might be a factor. At times, learned childhood behaviour when people were at their loudest to gain attention can cause an eternal need for it. Further, a chronically stressful or unsupporting environment where a person may have felt unheard can cultivate a sense of self-worth around the ability to influence the actions of others. Research has found that people with a high tendency to seek power were more likely to give advice than those with an opposite tendency. These people may further display an emotional vulnerability and dysregulation; becoming easily upset, overdramatising and/or taking a long time to self-regulate.

 

I’ve always found it interesting to explore a) what motivates people to provide advice and b) how the recipient responds. Many times I have seen a split / change in certain conversations if part of the family/friend group continually provides unwanted advice. As a consequence, this can cause relationship breakdowns.

Nonetheless, there is hope for both parties involved. It’s all about a touch of awareness and empathy towards each other.

To the person who loves giving advice – Do you notice that at times, because you have gone through a similar situation before that you might be able to add valuable insight? Great!! Advice and feedback can be certainly welcomed many times. There’s a difference between talking at someone and talking to someone. You just need to make sure it’s the correct delivery and also determine whether the recipient is in the right “emotional space” to listen.

So how do we do this? Questions which you might like to ask yourself –

  1. How is my friend/family presenting emotionally? Are they angry, upset, irritated, anxious? Make sure the recipient is in the right headspace to process the advice or advice can be misconstrued.
  2. Is this the right time to provide advice? Might I be best to just sit and listen today? Sometimes the best advice to give is a good ear. It’s amazing how much cognitive processing and solutions are found through listening along with fostering a culture of respect.
  3. What is the best way I can deliver my advice? How has it been perceived in the past?
  4. Why do I feel I need to give advice? It’s important to take stock over the intention of why you want to share; or are you just providing an opinion? Are you yourself feeling vulnerable or not being heard in your own life? When life gets tough, it can become easy to project our unhappiness or personal dissatisfaction on those close around us.

The recipient –

It’s easy to show disappointment, offense, irritation, anxiety or fear when faced with advice we really didn’t need to hear or be provided. Before deciding how to respond to unwanted advice, consider the source, and your relationship with that person. If it’s a stranger you’re likely to not see again, offer a polite ‘thank you’ response and go on with your day. If it’s a work colleague who offers unwanted advice on a daily basis, setting firm boundaries will benefit you not only emotionally but productively.

It can be tempting in this situation to react harshly in these situations, but you may find yourself being classified as the ‘damager’ of relationships. Self-control and a clear script can lead to the best and most graceful response leading to a feeling of resilience and self-empowerment.

  1. Take time to assess the situation both from a physical sense and an emotional one. Stand up straight, take ten deep breathes and try to collect yourself. You can even nod to the advisor while you are trying to process the words and regulate your body and heart rate.
  2. Providing some empathy here and put yourself in their shoes right now – why do they continually give advice? Are they the lonely ones? Are they not being heard in their own lives? Building a good defence against this is realising that everyone has an opinion – you can’t take their ideas about your life personally.
  3. Create an honest, firm and assertive response strategy which highlights how you feel about the advice. – “I’ll think about that.”, “Good idea”, “I’ll consider if that’s right for me”, “That’s an interesting opinion, but I prefer to do it this way.” “Thanks. I’ll try to look into it.” If your words don’t seem to send a strong enough message, you may need to limit your contact with such people. Proactively communicating a boundary around further advice can let them know that you’ve heard them and appreciate their input without using a potentially damaging narrative around not valuing their help.
  4. If you feel really stuck about how to act gracefully in these situations or find yourself feeling very stressed out, ask others how they respond gracefully when those situations arise.
  5. If all else fails, stay silent. If you can’t respond with grace, then just don’t respond.
  6. Be sure that you don’t reject all the advice you hear. Just because you weren’t looking for help doesn’t mean someone’s suggestions aren’t useful. Further, be thankful and open – you never know – they may have a good point you haven’t considered.

Responding to unsolicited advice is an art form however, learning how to master it is imperative to protect your self-esteem and overall emotional wellbeing. Take a step back from the situation and consider how you can respond from a thoughtful versus reactive place, you can turn unwanted advice into a learning and growth experience.

 

Schaerer M, Tost L, Huang L, Gino F, Larrick R. Advice Giving: A Subtle Pathway to Power. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2018;44(5):746-761. doi:10.1177/0146167217746341

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