Universal Ethics > Thought of the Month > October 2019

Unsolicited Advice

Unsolicited advice is often worse than useless.

An incident occurred recently in my home that gave rise to this "thought of the month." It seemed that our family had developed a spirit of negativity, fueled by constant criticism of each other. I thought I had avoided that habit myself, but I was getting very upset from hearing it in my home so often. So, as one occasion occurred that seemed particularly annoying, I decided to give one of my children some "helpful advice." Catch 22: unsolicited advice is typically taken as a kind of criticism, so not only was it not accepted, it added to the spirit of negativity and contention.

I should have known better, because this is not a new discovery!

Back in 1936, Dale Carnegie wrote a book that has since become famous: How to Win Friends and Influence People. He wrote a full chapter on how to influence the behavior of other people effectively, without getting the counterproductive reaction that occurs when people feel they are criticized.

As a brief way to cover the chapter, here is his end-of-chapter summary:

In a Nutshell


RULE 1: Begin with praise and honest appreciation.

RULE 2: Call attention to people's mistakes indirectly.

RULE 3: Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.

RULE 4: Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.

RULE 5: Let the other man save his face.

RULE 6: Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be "hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise."

RULE 7: Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.

RULE 8: Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct.

RULE 9: Make the other person happy about doing the thing you suggest.

As I considered the incident in my home that evening, I realized that as I uttered my two sentences of "advice," I had pretty much failed to follow all of the above rules. It's a natural reaction, when one is criticized, to respond in like manner, and I had fallen into that trap. Moreover, parents often suppose that it's a different situation for a parent to "correct" their child, but really a child reacts pretty much the same way as an adult to criticism.

It is also clear that people have different sensitivities on this matter. My son and daughter can treat each other like politicians in a national debate, making wild accusations, and they insist that they are not offended. Likewise between my daughter and her mom. But if I am treated that way, I feel offended. So it is important to understand people, so you can predict how they will react.

I read once that some friends can treat their friendship like a football, kicking each other around verbally, and their friendship remains durable. But other friends get all upset at a slight remark, and won't talk to each other for days after a perceived offense.

The most amazing thing I have discovered is that a single person can be in both of those categories at once, either very sensitive or very nonchalant, depending on who the criticism is coming from. If a person receives mild criticism from someone who is very reserved, they may take this as being very significant and offensive, while from someone else it may be considered as nothing.

When a person is offended, sometimes they stay silent about it, and that can sometimes be the worst result. It ruins relationships and destroys cooperation. A person who is the recipient of a criticism may be offended without it being apparent. And moreover, the person who gave the criticism might not even be aware that he offended, especially if he intended no offense.

Apart from Dale Carnegie's recommendations, there is one other suggestion I can offer to prevent such problems, which is to follow the habit of Socrates. Socrates did not offer unsolicited advice. Instead, he asked questions, which led to a dialog.

If, instead of giving unsolicited advice, we give advice only in response to a question, a lot of "feelings of being offended" would be eliminated. This doesn't mean that a society or a family must lack any sort of rules or consequence of rules, or that those rules can never be communicated without first being asked. But it is important to realize that sometimes a person just has to learn something for themselves.

This is especially true of children as they grow to teenage years and to adulthood, because they are developing independence and want to be respected and trusted. A parent may wish to give unsolicited advice to help their teen, but one needs to be very cautious about that because it can be counterproductive. So if it is something that is not going to cause a terrible disaster or misery, it is often best for the parent to let the child learn from experience.

In general, if a person is open to advice, and believes that someone may have the knowledge to help them, he will ask.

- Arthur de Leyssac, October 2019

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