Avoiding unsolicited advice is the key to a strong friendship

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/03/02/avoiding-unsolicited-advice-is.html


Probably a sound advice, but why would I need this kind of friends in the first place?


Agreed. I prefer people in my life who challenge and improve me rather than ones who are simply supportive.


Also good advice for parents. When my much-wiser-than-I daughter was in her early teens, she was having a bad day. I made the mistake of approaching her mood with my “engineer” mode engaged, and she blew up, asking whether she could just be sad without having her parents trying to solve her problems?

Very, very wise child. A year in, demonstrably a very wise mother too.


That’s exactly the same phrase my wife uses. Someone has a problem, she looks at it logically, and then she tries to solve it.

She found it especially hard to resist when people where asking for help. It took her many, many years to understand that they almost never wanted a solution, they just wanted support.

Akana just tries to be a supportive sounding board by saying things like, “How does that make you feel?”

Are you sure Akana is a person and not just an implementation of ELIZA?


Certain friends and relatives have strained their relationships with me over the years by regularly offering “advice” that is more like arm-twisting. Often it’s for things they know nothing about, or something they heard on NPR and think is cool. My own sister is such a busybody that she will try and tell the managers of stores how they should run their businesses.

It’s condescending.

But I also admit I have given advice when it wasn’t wanted. “Hey, just trying to help.”


What is it about a line of questioning that aims to first assess how you feel about a situation and your own ideas of how to remedy the situation that strikes you as not being supportive?


So she’s advising that we do this? What am I, her friend?

Nice way to use her advising skills/tendencies to try to solve the problem, tho.


Sure, but you mean improve as per your spec, and with your agency respected?

on advice: I long ago realized friends are usually coming by to hear a “that sounds like it must suck for you” and not for paternalistic crap. I’ll know they want advice when they ask directly for it. I try not to even consider advice unless asked, as I’ve noticed it prevents me from identifying with them as them - and moves me onto “if I were you” or the dreaded land of “should” - both of which are inherently self-congratulatory fictions.

tl;dr: offer sympathy, and if asked, advice


IMO, giving advice is fine as long as it uses words like “have you considered, some people find, you might try” etc. And avoids “you should”

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Giving advice when someone is emotionally distraught quite often gives the listener a handful of distinct impressions about you, the advice-giver:

  • you don’t want to listen anymore and want to move on to what you really wanted to be talking about
  • you think they haven’t tried to solve their problem
  • you think their problem is so simple, that, having heard about it mere seconds before, can come up with a solution they couldn’t in all the time they’ve been struggling with it
  • you don’t care about the context or details, you’ve head what you need to hear
  • you think you are rational and solutions-oriented and they are irrational and emotional, and you’ve decied which one is better.

And what does that exactly mean, “support”? That is the untold story here.

If people want “support” in place of solving their problem, in my experience it is that they will not solve their problem. So they will stay in the same situation for ever and will need “support” for ever. That may feel great to them, they get to be told that they are right and everything is fine while not doing the effort to actually solve their problem. But that is a strain on their supportive friends, with no end in view.

As I said, I am not really sure I want to be their friend under those conditions.

Hint: if I would be disingenuous, that would be a winning strategy. Being the “friend” of someone with unsolvable problems makes it very easy to exploit that person.


Friend: How could you frame me for armed robbery!?
Me: I totally understand why you’re upset. What do you think you’re going to do?
Friend: I’m looking at 5 to 10 years!
Me: Wow, that sounds really hard, how are you handling it?
Friend: Wow, you’re such an awesome friend. Anyway, thanks for listening.


I mean, I’m sure the rules of friendship are totally different down at Game Theory club, so you should be all good.


I am sure you are totally right.

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So what do you tell someone whose mother died to do to “solve her problem?”

Adolescence is stressful. It’s hard, and the changes that kids go through are tough – so much so that according to developmental psychologists they can be harmed by avoiding the emotional rough spots. So, when your teenager just wants a shoulder to cry on, to be reminded that Daddy loves her, let her cry. She already knows that the friend who moved away, the boy she had a crush on is a jerk, etc. Just be something stable in her life.

Is that really so hard to comprehend?


As elsewhere, what do you think someone might consider in the case of a death in the family?

Please reread the Book of Job for suggestions.

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So in other words, it’s not about the nail:

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As an engineer, I have struggled with this for decades.

What the problem-describer seeks first is empathy.

Some guided questioning to elicit possible solutions is for later.

“I would…” or “you should…” are not helpful, for reasons discussed in the comments above