Is unsolicited advice always criticism?

This week:

  • I focus on the word ‘unsolicited’
  • I have grown up with this
  • I suggest a way to make sure your advice is solicited
Photo by Marina Abrosimova on Pexels.com

A couple of weeks ago, I saw this tweet.

It reads:

Was at training once where the facilitator said “Unsolicited advice is criticism.  Always.”

Half the room audibly gasped/ objected.

The other half shouted a chorus of yes/thank you/amen.

She offered no quarter to the “just being helpful” brigade.  It was glorious.

This struck me as something that a lot of people will instantly rail against.

We’ve all been in that situation, where we can see someone doing something so wrong that we just itch to go and correct them.  Usually, we want to do it for their good, not ours – it’s not like we’re going to get anything from it.  They’re the one who wants to do the thing, whatever it is (write that book, build that wardrobe, cook that meal, etc.)

The point is that walking up to someone and saying, “You should be doing it this way,” is unsolicited and it is, implicitly, a criticism of the way they’re doing it now.  You are literally telling them that they’re doing it wrong because you know the right way.

I think what a lot of people haven’t paid enough attention to in this tweet is the word: unsolicited.

That one word does a whole load of heavy lifting.

It means that you can offer people advice.  You don’t have to watch them struggle to do something you know you can help with.

All you have to do is ask if they want your advice.

I’ve grown up with this

My dad has a phrase that’s been a refrain throughout my life.  Sometimes I’ll be doing something like packing a load of boxes or planning a journey or attempting some DIY and I’ll hear his voice from across the room.  “Do you want to know what I would do?”

I always stop and look at what I’m doing at that point.  It is such a good phrase because it tells me three things:

  1. He thinks he’s seen a more efficient way of doing this
  2. He’ll tell me if I want to hear it
  3. He’ll leave me to it if I don’t want to hear it

This empowers me to make the choice.

Now, because I know my dad is clever and of a practical nature, I tend to solicit his advice at that point.  “Go on then, tell me how you’d do it.”

Once he tells me, I get another choice: do I want to keep going with my way, or do I want to change?

Sometimes, I take a good look at what I’m doing and says, “Thanks, but I’m happy doing it my way.”  This is his cue to shrug and say, “Fair enough.”  He usually leaves the room at that point because it is incredibly frustrating watching someone do something in a way you think is less efficient than your way.  But he does let me carry on without offering a single piece of criticism.

Is it wrong or is it not what you would do?

I’ve talked to my dad about this and he said something that stuck with me:

There’s a difference between ‘doing something wrong’ and ‘doing it differently from the way I’d do it’.

Sometimes, people just choose to go about things in their own way and that’s fine.  As long as they’re not hurting anyone or damaging something that isn’t theirs to damage, it doesn’t matter.

If you’ve ever watched someone else wash up in a completely illogical way or stack a dishwasher as though it were a game of Tetris, then you know what I’m talking about.  They’ve been doing it this way for years and it has worked out just fine.  All that crockery will get washed.  It’s just not the best way of doing it.  But it’s not hurting you, so you have to leave them to it.

I’m not offended if you ask

When my dad asks if I want to know how he’d do whatever it is, I’m not offended.  It’s often easier for someone on the outside to see much more clearly than the person in the middle of doing it.

I might have come up with a workable solution and gone with that, without stopping to consider whether there is another, better workable solution.

However, I have to say that I’m not going to take advice from everyone.

It depends what the task is and whether I feel confident that I know what I’m doing or not.  It depends whether this is in person or on a social media platform (I’m less likely to take a generous interpretation on social media and much more likely to give the benefit of the doubt in person).  It depends whether I know you.  It depends whether you have expertise in this area.

If you ask me, “Do you want to hear my advice?” you’re asking me a question and I get to give you an answer.  I get to choose: yes or no.

Ask if people want your advice

If you ask someone, “I have an idea that will make that easier.  Do you want to hear it?” they will make a choice.

If they say no, then telling them your opinion is both unsolicited and obnoxious, after a direct request not to hear it.

If they say yes, however, they are then actively soliciting your advice.

Giving your advice after that is entirely reasonable.

All it takes is one little question before launching into your lecture or starting to point out where they’ve gone wrong.

Conclusion

Unsolicited advice is always criticism.

If someone solicits your advice, that is an entirely different matter.

You can (even should) ask people if they want your advice before giving it.  It’s not difficult to do, it shows respect and it stops both of you wasting your time if they don’t want to hear it.

Note

This isn’t purely about people (often men) giving unsolicited advice to women but it has to be said that women, people of colour and people with disabilities are often the ones who receive this kind of advice.

I’ve also noticed that young people (children, teens and even people in their twenties) get this a lot from adults/people older than them.  Ironically, this comes full circle and older people and pensioners also get unsolicited advice.

Basically, anyone who is visibly identifiable as being ‘lower’ on the social hierarchy than whoever is offering the advice.

If you’re interested in a feminist rant, check out my post What ‘women’s intuition’ really means because there are some overlapping themes with this post.

Or, find out more about gender bias in the very systems around us, structures that are ingrained into our way of life.  I’ve got a book review here of Invisible Women.

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