“Can I give you some advice?”
Has anyone, anywhere, at any time, not immediately responded with “sure” to that question? You are programmed to swiftly say “ok” to the person asking it. After all, replying with a “No, thanks” is rude. And you don’t want to be rude. So you listen to the advice even though you don’t want to.
Even though it will likely only annoy you.
A question about advice
I sat across from my psychologist. Me, resting on a neutral-colored couch. Her, on a similarly colored armchair. My session was coming to a close. I only had a few minutes remaining and I wanted to make them count.
I spoke up.
“Whenever I ask people if they want my advice, they always say ‘yes.’ Not because they necessarily want to, but because there is an obligation to. And so I give them my advice. But often I’m not sure if they actually want it or if they’re just following social norms. It’s confusing. I don’t want to preach to them if they’re just being polite. How do you handle situations like that?”
I had been in that described position many a time; someone I cared about was struggling with something, I wanted to help, so I politely asked, “Can I give you some advice?” But there was always doubt in my mind as to whether the person actually wanted it or not.
Obligated to say “yes”
I couldn’t think of an alternative. That question – “Can I give you some advice?” – seemed like the best route. It was far better than fully imposing myself on them with a statement like, “Here’s what you need to do…” And it was far more helpful than saying nothing at all, letting them struggle when I had the answer they needed.
So I was stuck in the middle.
I took the approach of “asking” if they wanted to hear what I had to say. Of course, they always said “yes,” and, of course, I always obliged. I happily ran my mouth with all sorts of I recommend’s and You should’s.
But it didn’t sit well with me. Mainly because I had been in their position before. I had been on the receiving end of “Can I give you some advice?” and I hated it. Because best case, I wanted to hear that person’s advice one out of ten times. Which meant that the other nine times I said “yes” simply out of obligation.
And I feared that was happening when I was the one asking the question.
A better way to phrase it
My psychologist didn’t take long to answer me. Her response was clear and easy to implement. She suggested that instead of asking – “Can I give you some advice?” or “Do you want some advice?” – I say, “If you ever want advice about that, let me know.”
A simple change. So simple I’m not sure why I was unable to come up with it without professional help. Regardless, turning it into an offer instead of an obligation was all I needed to do.
This adjustment doesn’t trap the other person into saying “yes.” Instead, it gives them control of the situation. If they genuinely want to hear what you have to say, they can ask for it. And if they don’t, they can simply say, “Sounds good,” and go about their day.
Results of the change
Since our conversation, I now use that phrase instead of its more intrusive counterpart. I still sometimes catch myself imposing with a – “Can I give you some advice?” – but it’s not as frequent as it once was. Rather, I say, “If you ever want advice about that, let me know.”
Guess how many times I’ve been taken up on my offer. It’s near-zero. Possibly one out of ten times, but probably closer to one out of 20. That tells me two things:
- Either I give terrible advice,
- Or people don’t like to be told how to do things.
I believe that most of the time people just don’t like to be told how to do things. Even when the advice is in fact better than the way they were doing it. They just don’t like it.
I can easily recall a handful of times loving people offered unsolicited advice to me. Even when it was good advice, I still was annoyed with them for giving it. Even when the advice improved my circumstances, I still didn’t want to hear it. Instead, I smiled, nodded, and cursed at them in my head. And I cursed even more when I found out how good their advice was after all.
No one likes to be told what to do. Or how to do something.
Out of the loop
When I have someone impose their advice on me too many times, I stop telling them things. It’s much easier to not get unsolicited advice when there is nothing to get unsolicited advice about. You probably do the same, whether you’re aware of it or not.
Now just think of how many people do that to you.
And consider how many more will stop sharing with you in the future. Think of your friends and family. Think of your kids and grandkids. Consider all the people who don’t want your unsolicited advice and will stop sharing with you altogether because of it.
You don’t want that, right? I know I don’t.
Move forward with your new phrase
It’s hard to bite your tongue. Especially when you feel like you have all the answers. But it’s so much better when they come to you by their own volition. For instance, you are reading this because the material interested you. You are not reading it because it’s the only option your phone gave you.
See your advice in the same way.
Give them the option to come to you. Don’t force your advice onto them. They may apply it in the moment, but in the long-term, they’ll simply stop letting you into their world. After all, better to do that than to be criticized at every get-together.
So make the simple change to your sentence structure. Remember, instead of asking – “Can I give you some advice?” or “Do you want some advice?” – say, “If you ever want advice about that, let me know.” Then, move on. If they want to hear what you have to say, they’ll let you know you.