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Why No One Wants Unsolicited Advice (and What Actually Helps)

“To meet complaint with unrequested council earns for the advisor a fortune of hidden contempt.” ~Greek Proverb

When people start dumping their complaints and woeful stories on you, how do you respond?

Do you see it as your golden opportunity to be of help to them?

Do you make it your mission to put your wealth of knowledge and wisdom to good use by coaching them through their difficulties?

I mean, isn’t this a great chance to share the extent of your wisdom and understanding, and also be of help to someone in their time of need?

But the most important question of all is this:

When you’ve encountered this situation, did they ask you for your assistance before you started advising them?

When people dumped their complaints on me, there was a time when I took the initiative and voluntarily started counseling them on their problem, even though they never asked me for my guidance.

I thought I was being helpful.

But then I made an important breakthrough discovery in maintaining the connections I had with others without accidentally destroying them.

Let me start at the beginning of my story…

When someone used to dump their problems on me, I used to think:

“Oh, they have this problem. I have the answers. I’ll be a good friend or family member and help them solve it, all because I care about them.”

I remember this one time, a friend of mine was having trouble dating women and he would complain about it to me.

Guess what I did?

Did I listen and seek to understand him, where he was coming from, and how he felt about the situation?

Nope.

What did I do?

I started right in on giving him unsolicited advice about how he could get better at dating women.

I thought I was being helpful.

But you know what?

I noticed a very curious thing happening as I did this…

I observed that his body language and voice tone started showing signs of irritation. I could tell he wasn’t welcoming and responding positively to my advice, even though I knew it was solid, and even though he was verbally agreeing with what I was saying.

Later, I started to wonder why this was.

Here he had a problem, I thought. Didn’t he want a solution?

Surely, he wanted one, right?

After all, why gripe about something if it’s not going to lead to a constructive outcome that brings about the desired results?

This investigation led me to question how I reacted when I shared my own problems with people and they responded by giving me unsolicited advice—which, incidentally, only happened for the first time after the incident with my friend and his dating problems.

Isn’t it funny how we sometimes don’t know that something’s annoying and maybe even condescending until we’ve been on the receiving end of the very same behavior ourselves?

I find it interesting that we often don’t know that we’re acting in ways that are turn-offs to others until we’ve had someone behave or treat us in the exact same way.

Isn’t it often only then that we have the epiphany?

Well, that’s what I learned about giving people unsolicited advice, especially in response to them dumping their problems on me—it’s patronizing and condescending.

Reacting to people who complain by telling them how they should solve their problems “forcibly” places us in the “superior” role to them. It frames us as the person with the “higher social rank” in the interaction, and lowers the complainer down into an inferior role.

And who likes to feel inferior to others?

But what do we think?

Isn’t it this:

“Oh, aren’t I being a great friend? I’m helping them out!”

But is it possible that we’re actually sending them a completely different message from the one we think we are?

Could it be possible that what they end up hearing is something else?

And could it also be possible that that message is something offensive and insulting to them?

Want to know what the recipient of unsolicited advice really hears?

I’ll warn you…

It’s not too flattering, and you may be ashamed of yourself to discover the true message behind your actions.

Between the lines, they hear you saying this to them:

“I think you’re inadequate and incompetent, and you require my superior knowledge and wisdom to make progress here. Without my help and intervention, you are a helpless victim incapable of dealing with your own problems. You should feel lucky that I’m even putting in my precious time and effort to give you some assistance. Furthermore, I don’t accept you the way you are. I’m making it my mission to change you so that you fit into my ideal of who I think you should be instead of accepting you as you are.”

Now imagine if someone said that directly to your face.

How would you feel?

Probably not very good, right?

Well, guess what?

That’s exactly how you’re making people feel when you give them unsolicited advice in response to their complaints.

So wouldn’t it greatly improve your ability to connect with people and win their esteem if you stopped making them feel this way?

For what’s more important than earning the love and respect of others?

Or, would you rather sacrifice their love and respect just so you can have your chance in the spotlight to prop yourself up as a “knowledgeable” and “wise” person?

And all for what?

Just to get an ego boost, at someone else’s expense?

After all, what does it profit us to share our “superior” wisdom and guidance with someone if all it earns us is their contempt?

And how does that really benefit us and our relationship with that person?

It doesn’t, does it?

Now let me ask you this:

Have you ever asked yourself why people dump their problems on others in the first place?

What do you think they really want by doing so?

Do you think they do it because they want a solution to their problem?

Do you think they do it because they want your help?

After all, isn’t that what we tell ourselves is the truth of the matter?

But are those the real reasons?

After all, if they wanted a solution and some help, wouldn’t they ask us for our feedback, opinions, or advice somewhere in there?

But do they?

Well, guess what?

Almost every time people complain, they’re not doing it because they actually want a solution to their problems. They’re not doing it because they want our help. They’re doing it for another reason altogether.

And what do they want exactly?

Simply this:

To be understood and receive sympathy.

That’s what they really want.

And more specifically, what they want is for someone to understand how difficult what they’re going through is for them.

That’s the response they really want from us.

Not unsolicited advice.

Trust me, that’s the last thing they want.

I mean, are you aware that people secretly hate and resent unsolicited advice, even though they’ll probably never tell us that to our face?

Instead, they’ll just put on a polite smile while perhaps they secretly fume about it behind their cordial mask.

I’ve discovered an important lesson in fostering healthy relationships is to stop trying to help people with their problems when they complain about them—unless they specifically ask for it. Instead, I’ve found it much wiser to seek to understand what they’re going through and what they must be feeling.

Then focus on that.

What people really want when they complain is to have their feelings not only understood but at the same time validated.

In short, people simply want affirmation on how much whatever they’re going through sucks and how hard it is.

If what you want is to connect with people in these types of situations instead of earning their resentment, don’t treat them like they’re a useless person who can’t do anything for themselves with your unrequested guidance.

Instead, identify the emotion they’re feeling, and then ask them about that.

Let me give you an example…

If someone is complaining that a person in their life isn’t giving them enough attention, instead of advising them and giving them tips on how they can get more attention from that person, try to identify what they must be feeling and then ask them about that.

In this case, you might say:

“So you’re feeling unloved?”

Their eyes will probably light up as if you’ve just read their mind, as they exclaim, “Yeah! That’s exactly it!”

Then you might follow-up with some kind of affirmation and then maybe even tell a very short story that relates to their situation.

Perhaps you might say:

“That really sucks, and I think I know what you’re going through. I once had a partner who would only pay me attention when they wanted something from me. I felt like I didn’t really matter to them, like they didn’t really care about me as a person.”

Why not let people work through their own problems and issues—even if you can see the error of their ways, and even if the solution seems obvious to you.

Why not respect them and let them figure it out on their own time, on their own terms, and in their own way unless they ask you for help?

When people dump their complaints and problems on you, if you really care about them, why patronize them with your unsolicited advice?

Why add fuel to the fire?

Aren’t they probably already feeling stuck or down enough as it is to have to endure someone’s condescension on top of it?

So why not try this approach to dealing with others’ complaints?

I encourage you to test this out the next time you find yourself in a situation where someone is dumping their problems on you.

Instead of “jumping to their rescue” with your saving grace and advice, seek to discover the emotion they must be feeling.

Then ask them if that’s how they feel.

If they confirm your suspicion, affirm how bad that must be, and maybe even share your own short story about the same or similar experience.

Then I suggest changing the subject at the first opportunity. Maybe even use your story to lead into it—because I wouldn’t advise focusing an entire conversation around how negative something is.

I believe in nurturing a positive outlook on life, yet at the same time being realistic, honest, and understanding that, yes, life does sometimes suck and it’s wise to accept that rather than living in an illusion where the world is filled with rainbows and lollipops.

There are, of course, ways of truly helping people with their problems without giving them unsolicited advice, but that’s an article in itself.

Ultimately, it all comes down to this…

What would you rather have:

A strong connection with the people in your life, or the certain knowledge that they harbor hidden feelings of resentment toward you due to your unwanted, condescending advice?

The choice is yours.

About Keenan Cullen

Keenan Cullen is passionate about becoming the very best communicator he can possibly be. If you want to learn more about what he’s discovered about dealing and relating with people effectively, visit his blog or sign-up for his free weekly articles at keenancullen.com.

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  • Christopher Johnson

    As a person seeking growth and maturity I’d say this is solid information. I think that ithe article should also focus on boundaries more. “Complaining” to someone with whom you have an intimate relationship is acceptable. But ANYONE who constantly complains about a situation, yet takes no action to make changes will wear on the spirit of a saint given time! As a person with a full plate I sometimes expect adults to figure out their problems instead of complaining about them. (As I said I fully agree with the validity of this article.) I also believe the reaction of those who abhor complaing should be considered. Some people don’t like to complain, why should they have listen to it from others? Should there be no onous on the complainer to seek solace with another party? If my behavior is one that I NEVER ask you to listen to my complaints then why in the world would you think I would want to hear yours? I know people are all unique. It HAS been my personal experience that this article is spot on. However don’t forget many people don’t function this way. You will find many in the military or law enforcement who do not. Personaly if I bring a situation to you that I am failing to accomplish my desired goal…I want possible solutions not sympathy. My wife of 25 years is the opposite. It took time to understand but now I just listen and comfort her. She knows however that I want her opinion on how to fix the situation if I bring to her. And that’s exactly what she gives me! Good luck to everyone!

  • Kayte CookWatts

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. But most people do not do this with a new problem. They whine and complain about the same problem because it is the only way the know to get attention, with no intent to change or solve the problem at all. They don’t need someone to feed this by encouraging more complaining. I will listen to a real problem with compassion, but someone who does this continually needs to pay a therapist.

  • Elisa

    I also agree with this article wholeheartedly and it takes practice and awareness. I appreciate the reminder. I also agree with your insights as well, Christopher. I’m not a complainer but if I’m bringing something to the table about not meeting a goal, the last thing I want is sympathy. Great article, great response.

  • Kathleen Fitzgerald

    Eh, lol, does anyone else see the irony in an article where the author is giving advice about not giving advice? : )

  • suemenow

    empathy is even better than sympathy…can be a slight but profound difference

  • Debrael EarthAngel

    There is something very wrong in a person if they immediately have those negative thoughts about someone who’s only trying to help them. However, I agree that many people do react in that way! And, instead of resenting the help that’s being given and hating the one who’s trying to help….it’s *they* who need to change the way in which they are reacting to someone who is a friend, cares about them, and is trying to help them! My advice is: ask the person who is complaining something like this, “Are you venting, or would you like my advice?”

  • Beth Tucker

    Thank you, great advise!!! Lol when i complain or share problem i want an answer or solution. Why else would i be talking about it. Lol so yep i was clueless.

  • Beth Tucker

    Amen

  • Beth Tucker

    Good one

  • ChipAHoy

    I agree with most of this article, but everyone is different. Sometimes people who are distraught can’t ask for help. I agree with the responder who said we could ask the person, are you venting or do you want advice? I always wished my older brother would once in awhile give me some advice and ideas, because he has had a life experience with many different situations, is more grounded and spiritual than me. But he never offered any advice, and I got tired of asking.

  • This is an awesome post! I definitely feel wiser after reading it and will attempt to practice more active listening and empathy as opposed to auditioning for the role of an unlicensed therapist.