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Rules of advice giving

· Resource

What do you think about giving and taking advice?

Lately, I've been triggered by a couple of incidents of people giving advice. Really terrible, uninformed, harmful advice. The advice-givers in question weren't shitty people. They just gave really shitty advice. And it really pissed me off.

In life I'm generally against asking for advice, and people giving advice. I understand that advice has it's place in the world but, like recruiters, that they should only be used in specific circumstances under strict conditions. I know I'm probably not in the majority here and that this trait may be in part due to my coaching background.

But let me tell you about those incidents that triggered the Ignite topic and this blog post (which is different in subject to my talk!)

Incident 1

I have been selected as one of the speakers at Ignite Phnom Penh's fourth event, where I will be giving a 5 minute presentation to one thousand young people. Initially I was supposed to be sharing two simple but powerful techniques on overcoming fear. However, at a preparatory event with the other speakers, I witnessed something that made me change my mind.

There were a couple of speakers talking about two very important topics: female empowerment and on quiet introverted people. They both shared their main points with the group and I was very inspired by their message.

Cue extroverted mansplainer.

The mansplainer (described as when overconfidence and cluelessness meet in a man) proceeded to tell them what they "needed to do" in their talks, completely changing their points and the energy behind their message.

Incident 2

So Incident 2 was on Facebook. If you've known me for a while, you will know that I have a tendency to get involved in online debates. Yes, I'm one of those. I'm not proud of it, and do it much less nowadays, but I came across something which triggered me. Perhaps I'd been primed from Incident 1 and the preparation I'm doing for Ignite. Or perhaps it's because this was about a topic close to my heart.

It started off quite normally. It was a post shared by a friend - one of those posts you see quite often on Facebook - something about depression. It was actually quite beautiful. What caught my eye though, was a comment attached below:

"It's not depression until you think you have one. You're are what you think you are. If you keep surrounding yourself with negativity, no doubt. Depression or not is a choice. Don't be a reactive person. Be proactive. You can choose to feel, accept, deny all those words. I don't offense depression since I used to think I had one. And I realized that cutting all those bullshit and negative people and choose what to react to certain circumstances won't put me in the same feeling again. In conclusion, depression is real. But cut off the bullshit, cut off the negativity focus on the positive side, workout, improve yourself, pursue new hobbies. And say goodbye to depression. Or if it comes back, you know how to deal with it by yourself, quickly."

This pissed me off to no end and I addressed my friend who'd shared the post telling her to ignore this rubbish and get advice from qualified people who know what they're talking about - doctors, scientists and those who take depression seriously.

The dangers of the shit:truth ratio

If we know each other already, we might have spoken about the dangers of bad advice and information. That often, the most dangerous case is where the advice or information sounds like it's good or correct. That there's just enough truth (which often isn't even relevant) mixed in with the shit that it seems like what they are saying might be correct.

I didn't go into detail about the bad advice in Incident 1, but I can show you what I mean in Incident 2.

  • "It's not depression until you think you have one." Shit
  • "You are what you think you are." Shit
  • "Don't be a reactive person. Be proactive." Truth. Irrelevant
  • "Don't surround yourself with negativity." Truth
  • "Depression or not is a choice." Shit
  • "You can choose to feel, accept, deny all those words." Irrelevant
  • "I don't offense depression since I used to think I had one." Shit
  • "And I realized that cutting all those bullshit and negative people and choose what to react to certain circumstances won't put me in the same feeling again." Truth. Irrelevant

How to give advice

That's the background to this post. It might sound a bit negative, but honestly witnessing that put me in a rather negative mood. But hopefully it leads to some good. As Richard Rohr says, "pain that is not transformed is transmitted", so here's me trying to transform it.

As a life coach, I'm very aware of the dangers of giving advice. In fact, I rarely give advice. Professionally or even with my friends (the latter which pisses them off sometimes - "Stop reflecting questions back to me, just tell me what you think I should do!").

I wanted to share with you some ground rules for advice-giving so that the world can have fewer shitty advice and mansplainers.

The list

1. Don't give unsolicited advice.

2. If you feel like you need to break rule number 1 (but don't), ask for permission. Only give advice if you have permission.

3. Don't force your advice and let go of it as soon as you've given it. Don't get pissed off if they don't take it.

If you get annoyed, it's a sign that your advice was ego-driven and it's more about you than the advice-seeker. Perhaps you care about them and you're frustrated that they're stuck in a bad state. You're assuming you know better. And that's arrogant.

4. Don't give advice based on anecdotal evidence (only your experience). Just because it worked for you, doesn't mean it will work for everyone (or anyone) else.

If you're giving advice on depression, learn about the topic. Advise based on evidence-backed research. The world doesn't revolve around you. You don't have all the answers.

Just because you did something one way to get ahead at work, it doesn't mean that the same approach will work for your friends or partner. "Based on my experience" means shit.

5. If you're using the words "you need to" or "you should" or "you must", just don't. Avoid the temptation to add, "If you don't do it, then [insert bad thing that you are certain will happen]".

Like above, who the hell do you think you are to tell someone that they "need to" do it your way? (See caveat below, but there are exceptions. For example, advice filling out a form, tax return or a job application will have specific steps that everyone needs to follow. Alternatively, generic advice like "you need to think carefully before deciding to marry that person" is fine.)

6. Do feel free to share what happened in your life, but don't frame it as advice and tell the advice-seeker that you are not advising them to do the same thing.

"For me, having a regular exercise routine and lifting heavy weights helped me when I was in my most depressive states. Studies show that it helps a lot of people. You might want to consider giving that a try."

7. Don't give advice if you're not qualified to give advice (Incidents 1 and 2).

8. Don't give advice if you have no skin in the game.

I'm not interested in hearing advice from people about my workshops if they are not doing anything in that field or taking part in my workshops. Same with my talks that I give.

9. If you find yourself talking too much (more than a few sentences), shut up. You're likely giving terrible advice. Have a discussion instead.

10. Do encourage them to find their own answers.

People sometimes get confused when I say I'm against giving advice, or when they come to me for advice and I refuse to give it. "But isn't that what you do?", they ask. No, as a coach I've trained myself to remove my ego from the equation. I'm interested in my coachee discovering for herself the answer that she needs, rather than the coachee following some answer that I've prepared for her.

This does not mean that I don't engage. I engage and I am very invested in her achieving the outcome she wants. I engage by encouraging ideas, discussing possibilities and testing approaches. I engage by knowing my shit about what works for a lot of people based on research, while understanding that research deals with probabilities and that exceptions apply.


Note that these rules apply when advice-seekers are looking for answers to questions that are wide in scope and high in importance. There are exceptions.

"Should I wear those elephant pants for my hot date tonight?" You should just say no. In fact, please feel free to give unsolicited advice in that case.