A Surprisingly Effective Substitute for Unsolicited Advice

Want to break the advice-giving habit but aren’t sure what to do instead? Want someone else to stop giving you unsolicited advice all the time? Here’s a good question to ask in those moments and a simple alternative to giving advice when what they really want is someone to listen.

When someone tells you about a problem, that’s not the same as asking for advice.

Before I was a full-time mediator, I was a college vice president. When I left that work to open my conflict resolution firm, my staff gave me a fire extinguisher as a joke momento. It pretty much summed up what the average day of a college VP is like.

Back in those days, I’d come home, usually well past dinner time, and my sweet husband would ask, “How was your day?”

I’d respond by sharing the fire extinguisher moments. It was often a lengthy list. Do you know the sound of the teacher’s voice in Charlie Brown television specials? That’s probably how I sounded.

My husband would then launch into advice mode. “Have you tried…?” “What if you tried…?” “How about doing this…”

In rather too few moments, we’d be having a little fire extinguisher moment of our own. It would typically go like this:

Me: I don’t need advice on this.
Him: Then why did you complain to me about it?
Me: Because you asked about my day.
Him: I’m just trying to help.
Me: I didn’t ask for help.
Him: Fine!

One day, instead of ending with the crossed arms and “Fine!” that usually brought the exchange to an end, my husband asked a question:

How can I be most helpful to you right now?

That’s why I’m with this man. He knows how to ask the right question. I considered for a moment, then responded, “I want comforting noises.”

And our “how was your day” conversations changed completely from that moment on. He’d lean on the kitchen counter while I talked about my day — and make comforting noises: “Oooh…” “Ah!” “Oh boy.” “Uh oh.” “Hmmm.”

All the sympathy, empathy and attentiveness, none of the unsolicited (and unwanted) advice.

What a difference comforting noises make!

                        author

Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at https://tammylenski.com/archives/… MORE >

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