Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Reader’s Comment on Advice on Giving Unsolicited Advice

Dear Readers,

My 9/21/11 column, “Advice for Giving Unsolicited Advice”, generated both a lot of emotion and e-mails, so in this column I want to share some of these e-mails, as well as my additional comments.

One grandfather wrote: …I do not like the image of “walking on egg shells” when considering when an in-law can give unsolicited advice. However it raises a question: does your advice also apply to the parents of grown children, or, in fact, to any relationship?

You raise a good point about the extent to which my advice might apply to other relationships. My advice is general and everyone has to think about it within the context of their own situations and relationships. Yes, it might apply to the parents of grown children — again, depending on the relationships. Some grown children welcome their parents’ advice, others tolerate it, some out and out resent it, and for others it’s a combination, depending on the situation. Maybe some grandparents are needlessly “walking on egg shells,” whereas others should be! The only way to know for sure is to discuss it, and I hope my column expedites such discussions.

For example, a grandmother wrote: My husband and I were discussing your column on giving advice at dinner last night. We were saying how it took just that one word of “interfering” to cause the upset. I think that communication is such risky business with every relationship. One never knows whether whatever one says to another person is received in the manner in which it was intended. And timing is of great importance, too. In fact, I have found myself in that situation with my daughter on several occasions. When we talk it over, it most often is that I have reacted without all the information I needed.

You make an excellent point about the advice giver’s intentions often causing problems and having unintended impacts on the one receiving the advice. Hence, well-intentioned help is often experienced as “interference,” i.e., meddling, judging, and worst of all, criticizing. Anytime we say “you should…,” it’s difficult not to interpret this as, “If you were as smart as I am, you would know to do such and such.” Of course this is not the hoped-for impact, but, many times, there you are.

However, there are ways we can minimize the risk that our giving advice will cause problems by using some simple communication that tests the waters before we dive in. For example, if we are involved in a situation in which we want to give input and/or solutions, we can say, “Would it be helpful if I gave you my opinion/advice?” And then we need to listen carefully to the answer and pay attention to the body language. Sighs of exasperation, eyes rolling heavenward, and arms crossed across the chest say a lot.

And, yes, timing is critical, too. Sometimes we can increase our chances of being listened to if some time has passed and elevated emotions have a chance to abate. Then we might begin by saying, “I’ve been thinking about that situation from yesterday, and if it would be helpful, I have some advice for you to consider.” Again, the emphasis is on positing yourself as wanting to be helpful, not intrusive or interfering, and the best way to do this is to say explicitly, “I am trying to be helpful…” Then we have to be prepared for being told that we are, in fact, not being helpful. Also, even if the advice is welcomed, it does not guarantee it will be followed, and it does not mean that any future unsolicited advice will be gladly received.

Another grandmother wrote: My situation is a bit different. When I was a young mother, both my mother and mother-in-law gave me so much advice my head spun. I vowed that when I was a grandmother I was not going to give advice. And that is what I did for months after my first grandchild was born. Even when asked for my advice, I would back peddle and say nothing, or something like, “Whatever you do will be good.”

My daughter finally sat me down and said, “Mom, when I ask for your advice, it’s because I need it. When you clam up it feels like you don’t care.” Now when I have some advice, I give my daughter this certain look, tilt my head to the right, and she says, “Okay. Tell me.” And I do.

This grandmother’s e-mail is a good reminder that the rules and boundaries for giving advice in any relationship will vary, but one constant is the value of having some discussion about the circumstances under which receiving advice is helpful, and when it is not. Most young parents will probably feel comfortable initiating this conversation with their own parents, but in many cases, the grandparents may have to take the lead.

I hope this has been helpful!

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every Wednesday.


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