To give advice - or not to give advice, that is the question
One of the most persistent problems witnessed within families who visit my consulting rooms is with the unhelpful consequences of giving unsolicited advice. Really all most family members want is just to be heard!
Why does the apparently innocuous, well-intended act of advice-giving generate such anger and animosity? Frequently between the adult child and a parent or between spouses – usually a wife to a husband, sometimes vice versa.
I believe it is because the person being ‘advised’ does not feel they are being seen or heard. Instead they believe they are being judged, made to feel stupid and inadequate. ‘That is not the intention!’, I hear the advisers plead. Well, it may not be the intention but that is often what is heard by the receiver of advice.
Why is it that what is said is not what is heard? This is a well-known concept in communication theory of ‘coding and decoding’. How a message is coded in, say, the brain of the sender, may be a totally different message when it is received in the other person’s brain and decoded.
Psychologically we interpret or decode all messages we receive out of our past life experience and our value system. This is how we make meaning from the words people say.
Back to advice-giving: it is not usually the advice itself that is the problem, rather it is usually that the receiver has not asked for advice. And here’s the rub - if the advice is requested then it is usually welcomed! What is usually wanted when someone is sharing is just to be heard, to be listened to, for a safe space to share feelings:
“But when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel, no matter how irrational, then I quit trying to convince you and get about the business of understanding what’s behind this irrational feeling. And when that’s clear, the answers are obvious and I don’t need advice.” Writes Ralph Roughton in his poem On Listening.
The main problem with advice it that it is received, or decoded, as judgemental.
For example, a mother suggests to her adult daughter that her shoes do not match her coat. Subconsciously, the daughter decodes the advice as meaning, “You are stupid and can’t make the right choices about clothes”. Or perhaps it is a wife suggesting the husband feed the baby rather than change the baby’s nappy. He might decode it as: “You’re not good enough at being a dad”.
This naturally triggers lots of anger between the parties, it also triggers lots of negative core beliefs in the decoders that are based on past life experiences and a rich source of work in therapy. But just for now let’s stay with the do’s and don’ts of advice-giving.
As a rule don’t give advice (unless such advice is requested) because:
- You have not done what is asked!
- You have failed the other person.
- Advice giving contributes to another’s fear and inadequacy.
- Advice makes others feel helpless and powerless.
- Advice giving puts you in a position of ‘better than’ the other person, who is in ‘less than’.
- Advice giving can trigger negative core beliefs in the other person.
- Advice giving can be experienced as invasive and judgemental.
I’ll leave the last words to Roughton, “so, please listen and just hear me. And, if you want to talk, wait a minute for your turn, and I’ll listen to you.”
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About Annabel McGoldrick
Dr Annabel McGoldrick is a psychotherapist specialising in trauma and family therapy, with 15 years' varied experience treating addictions, phobias, PTSD, depression, anxiety and complex trauma. She is passionate about everyone's ability to recover and live happy fulfilling lives.