Experts say to use your head before butting in
FARGO -- It can be tempting to butt in when someone seems to be making a big mistake.
Maybe you think she's in a bad relationship.
Or her kids are out of control.
Or she needs to be more responsible with her money.
Whatever the situation, James Pfiefer, a licensed professional clinical counselor with Prairie St. John's in Fargo, said people have to be careful when offering unsolicited advice.
"When it's not wanted, it's completely ineffective and oftentimes could serve to make the person with the concern feel invalidated," he said.
The instant someone offers up unsolicited advice, that person has made herself the expert on another person's situation, he said.
"I think oftentimes people give advice when they feel inadequate or helpless in a situation and that's their way of trying to feel better with an uncomfortable or difficult situation," Pfiefer said. "We want to feel useful, and we want to feel helpful, and we don't like to see people hurting. ... But oftentimes in working to solve that for somebody I've invalidated their ability to do it for themselves."
Unwanted advice can even damage a relationship, he said.
"In relationships, especially in partner relationships, that is a big bug-a-boo," Pfiefer said.
Not only could the person being given the advice feel offended, but the advice giver might feel hurt if the advice isn't taken or if the person he or she is trying to advise doesn't respond favorably, he said.
Peter Gray, an author and research professor at Boston College, said on his blog on phsychologytoday.com that he and his wife have a wonderful marriage, partly because they have learned to avoid giving each other unwanted advice.
People, no matter their age, naturally crave freedom and resist control from others, he said.
"We especially don't want to follow the advice of a loved one because, each time we do so, it feels like a step toward changing the relationship from one between equals to one of unbalanced power," he said.
Unsolicited advice from loved ones can be threatening because of our strong desire to please them, he said. The conflict between complying with the advice to show love and not complying to assert our freedom creates frustration, which leads to anger, he said.
A lot of parents might try to tell their adult children what to do because they feel they have more life experience and want to help them avoid making mistakes, said Mary Aasness, a counselor with The Village Family Service Center in Fargo.
But the children don't often hear the message, she said.
"There are some life lessons we just have to learn by doing," Aasness said.
Children feel a powerful drive to assert their independence. It's what motivates them to take the risks they must take to grow up, find their own paths, and take charge of their lives, Gray said.
The more parents refrain from giving their children unsolicited advice, the more likely they will ask for if when they need it and follow it if it's reasonable, Gray said.
But because children don't necessarily have the ability to problem-solve, it's important to give advice when raising them, Pfiefer said. They key is that the way the message is delivered has a big impact on how it's heard, he said.
If parents work with their kids on problem-solving by thinking through options and telling them what they might do without telling their kids what to do, then parents teach them the skills they need to solve their problems.
When to step in
But there are ways to step in if you really want to help someone, Pfiefer said.
Part of it is the way the advice is worded. If you tell someone what to do, you're making yourself an expert on their life. But if you offer thoughts on how you might handle a situation, it gives them options, he said.
"It's always OK to let somebody know your concerns, especially if it's somebody you care for," Pfiefer said. "It's one thing to say you're in a bad relationship. It's another to say, here are my concerns, here are the things I'm seeing that make me worried for you."
More often, Pfiefer said people appreciate an opportunity to have someone listen to them without judgment.
"Any time you communicate with somebody, there's the message that you're trying to get across, but there's the package that you put it in," Pfiefer said. "Oftentimes the package is what facilitates whether or not somebody gets the chance to internalize your message."
It can be difficult watching a loved one suffer, but one of the hard parts of being in relationships is recognizing that we can't take responsibility for somebody else's wellbeing, he said.
Before offering up unsolicited advice, think about why you're butting in, whether the situation affects you, if someone's physical or emotional wellbeing is at stake, or if you just want to impose your standards on someone else's life, Aasness said.
The depth of a relationship also makes a difference, she said.
"There are people you know you can say anything to and they would probably listen, and there are people you know it won't go so well if you try to give them unsolicited advice," Aasness said.
If someone else's children are behaving inappropriately and it's a safety issue, Aasness suggests telling the parents factually, but not judgmentally.
"The thing you want to stay away from are the finger-pointing statements," she said. "You don't want to put people on the defensive."