Why do we react this way to unsolicited advice? Why don’t we just accept it for what it often is–the other person’s genuine concern and desire to help? Others who have written on this question have suggested a number of reasonable answers. They suggest that the advice, justifiably or not, comes across to us as one-upmanship, or assertion of dominance, or criticism, or distrust, or failure to consider our own unique goals and priorities… I agree with all that, but I would add that the main, underlying answer has to do with our desire to protect our own freedom.
For good evolutionary reasons… we human beings naturally crave freedom. We resist control from other people. We do this regardless of our age and regardless of whom it is who wants to control us. Married people resist control from their spouses; old people resist control from their middle-aged children; children of all ages resist control from their parents. And, of course, students resist control from their teachers, which is one reason why schools as we generally know them produce such poor results…By complying, we may be signaling our future willingness to subordinate ourselves to the other person’s will.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and unsolicited advice is the mortar.” I made a decision to stop giving advice unless specifically asked for it. I quit, cold turkey… Stopping giving advice changed everything.
I found myself incredibly present in my conversations and interactions with others in a way I’d never been before. I was liberated from my self-imposed responsibility to help people who aren’t asking for assistance. I could just sit back, listen, empathize, and be there. Instead of the “You should do this…” or “You need to do that…” reflex I’d say, “I’m here for you, with whatever you need,” and, “How I can help?”
Sometimes, of course, unsolicited advice is welcome. If I’m stepping into the ocean and someone, anyone, comes over and advises me not to swim there because sharks were spotted there a few minutes age, I’m grateful. I hear this not so much as advice as useful, potentially life-saving information, which I didn’t know before. I’d feel even more grateful, though, without even the slightest tinge of annoyance, if the Good Samaritan had entirely omitted the advice part of the message (to not swim there) and just given me the information part (about the sharks). Then I’d feel that a decision to stay out of the water was entirely my own, based on my own capacity to think rationally, and was not in any way coerced. I wouldn’t, then, have even the slightest temptation to continue into the water just to prove that “I’ll do whatever I blankety blank well choose to do, thank you!
“Don’t have an opinion about something you’re not responsible for.”
Wishing for you this year that all those around you will give the gift of love and acceptance, and keep their unwelcomed thoughts on your appearance, activities, career, spouse, and kids to themselves. Hope you have a fantastic Holiday!