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The Art of Holding Your Tongue: When Not to Give Advice

Advice is a bit like glitter: once it's out there, it's nearly impossible to take back. It's one of those things that, when done right, can be a shining beacon of wisdom and compassion. But when done wrong, it's like throwing sand into the gears of a well-oiled conversation. Yes, my dear readers, there are times when the kindest, wisest, and most compassionate thing you can do is to zip those lips and stow away your pearls of wisdom.

But don't just take my word for it. Recently, Tara Mohr brought these questions to a discussion with a group. To start, she asked the group to reflect back on their experiences and estimate: what percentage of the time has advice they've received actually been helpful?

The majority of the group said that of all the interactions when someone has given them advice, the advice was helpful to them only 10-25% of the time. In other words, most of the time, advice is not helpful! That alone is a really important thing for us to consider. Then we looked at the data of our own lives, considering what distinguished helpful and unhelpful advice we've received. What we discovered was illuminating. For this group, here's what commonly characterized the times when advice was not helpful, or was even harmful:

  • The advice was not asked for.

  • The advice didn't reflect careful listening to the other party.

  • The advice seemed to come from fear or projections of the advice-giver.

  • The advice was based in assumptions, and/or reflected blind spots related to the privilege of the advice-giver.

  • The advice felt like it contained criticism, judgment, or condescension.

On the other hand, here's what was present during times advice was truly helpful:

  • Trust—they trusted the person who was giving advice.

  • Permission—they asked for advice or the other person asked for their permission before giving advice.

  • The person was not pushy about the advice, and was not attached to them following it.

  • Often, the advice-giver was able to put the advice in the context of their own experience, and make explicit that the other party's context/experience/goals may be different—in other words, they didn't assume lessons from their own life would necessarily apply to the other person.

  • The recipient could feel that the advice came from a place of love and caring. (Note, this is very different from the advice-giver feeling their advice comes from a place of love and caring. Here what we are talking about is that the recipient actually feels, in their own being, that the advice is coming from a place of love and caring.)

  • In some cases, there was also a sense that the advice-giver saw potential, talent or possibility in them that the person did not see in themselves—and the advising was about helping them step into that potential. (In co-active coaching terminology, what we would describe as "calling forth" the other person.)

So, if we were to extrapolate some guidelines for giving more helpful advice, those might include:

  • Wait to be asked for advice, or if you feel inspired to share advice without being asked, authentically and gently ask permission first.

  • Listen carefully and deeply to the other party before ever moving into advising. You might want to even repeat back to them the key themes of what you heard and check with them—did I get that right? Am I hearing you?

  • Start from the assumption that the other party's experience, circumstances, and goals are different from yours, not the same.

  • Start from the assumption that what worked for you in your life or career is not a universally applicable approach but was shaped by your particular identity and forms of privilege.

  • Do your own inner work to unhook from any projections or attachment to outcome that's present in your stance toward this person or their situation. That inner work may take days or weeks! Then, after you've done that work, see what's left over that you really feel moved to say.

To offer you a piece of guidance (and remember, you've willingly engaged with this blog), :) the next time you find yourself in a situation primed for advice-giving, keep in mind that occasionally, the kindest form of assistance is withholding it altogether. Unsolicited advice can be akin to a bitter ingredient in an otherwise delightful dish—sometimes, it's best to omit it to maintain harmony and the true essence of our relationships. So, keep your advice within reach, your ears receptive, and your interactions unaltered: authentic, and whole.

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