If you’re married (or in a long-term, committed relationship), you probably already know that giving lots of unsolicited advice does not a happy union make. This Wall Street Journal article about wives and husbands giving advice rings pretty true to my experience and makes it clear that, especially when advising a beloved, good intentions are not enough.
The article got me thinking about advice-giving in general — to friends, relatives, colleagues, even strangers. Doling out wisdom (or telling people what to do) comes naturally to me: I’m the eldest of 10, and as a trained counselor and certified life coach, I’m always interested in pointing others in the direction of self-growth and greater fulfillment. But I’ve learned over the years that telling people outright what they should do pretty much never works and misunderstands how people actually change.
It can be painful to watch people we care about fail, stay stuck, or continue in the same habits. I know how much I want to save loved ones from making the same mistakes I’ve made, and how much I want to share what I know. I take seriously that we are “our brothers’ keepers,” and that means calling each other to more.
But where does giving advice fit into that? If it rarely has the desired effect, is there any place for it? I hope so, because I’m just about to give you some:
1. Give less advice and more encouragement.
It’s always best to keep advice to yourself and instead offer assistance, supportive words, and encouragement. This can empower people to make changes on their own. But when you do have that burning need to share something and it just won’t go away…
2. Honesty is (usually) the best policy.
Sometimes it works better to just come out and say, “You know, I’d like to give you some unsolicited advice based on my experience/opinion/expertise, and you can take it or leave it. Can I share it with you?” Most people will say yes. Doesn’t mean they’ll do anything more than hear you out. But it’s their business to decide what to do with what you share—not yours.
3. Focus on questions.
If your friend would just listen to your advice about how to lose weight, she’d feel better faster, right? The problem is, none of us likes to be told what to do; we like to discover it for ourselves. And that’s important because we need to own our decisions and take responsibility for them. Rather than simply saying, “You should do blankety-blank,” ask questions to open up the conversation: “How are you doing with this?” “What’s important to you right now?” “What can I do to help?” “Why don’t you just smarten up and do what I tell you?” (Just kidding about that last one.)
4. Respect the person, even if you don’t respect what they’re doing (or not doing).
People have to want to change, and the fact is some people don’t — at least not yet. We’ve all been there, right? Sometimes, we’re just not ready. We may be spinning our wheels or repeating patterns because there are deeper issues we don’t want to face. None of us likes pain or discomfort; we don’t like to do what’s hard, lose face, be wrong, make mistakes. Always respect where other people are in their own growth and let them do things in their own time.
5. Give advice the way you’d like to receive it.
Giving advice is easy; taking advice isn’t. Use “I” statements as much as possible, share your own experience, show genuine concern, and ensure your tone is not judgmental or critical. Also, don’t nag. State your advice, then let it go. (Granted, this is so hard to do with a spouse!)
6. Ask for advice.
People love to give advice — which is why we give so much of it unsolicited — but we’re not always very good about asking for it. Maybe if we asked for each others’ wisdom, feedback, and opinions more often, we’d be better off. When was the last time you asked for advice from someone?
The bottom line when it comes to advice-giving is that it must be about the other person, and not about you — which isn’t always easy to differentiate when you’ve got a burning truth to impart. When I share my profound kernels of wisdom (ahem) with unsuspecting people, I try to make sure it is not coming from a need to be right or superior.
Ultimately, unless advice is asked for, holding our tongues is often the better road. Being a champion of the people we care about, and believing in them, goes a lot further than telling them what to do. That’s because truth goes hand in hand with freedom. Each of us must be allowed to forge our own path to the truth, otherwise we’re just living someone else’s convictions.
Think of a child being taught the religious beliefs of her parents. Eventually she must claim for herself what she’s been taught. It can hurt to watch a loved one pave their own road — and get lost along the way — but we’re in good company: God does the same with us, patiently waiting for us to learn what he has created us for.
Make no mistake: we must never be indifferent to the truth. But when it comes to advice, what’s most convincing is to bear witness to the truth in your own life, while humbly inviting others to discover the truth for themselves.
This article originally appeared on SlowMama.