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In the Spiritual Corner #3

From the Buurtbrief (Neighborhood newsletter) April 2023, by Birds WG

The Pitfalls of Unsolicited Advice

Unsolicited advice is the advice we give when other people have not actually asked us for advice. It is a habit we all have and it is very hard to quit, even though it creates all sorts of problems in our connection with other people.

Giving unsolicited advice is primarily a codependent habit: it is a cover up for vulnerability, it promotes unclear communication, it breeds insecurity and competitivity, and it creates spiritual disconnection.

All the above is also true even when the advice is really good!

Let’s take an example. You meet with a friend and they tell you they are frustrated with another friend over something the other friend said. You tell them“ Well, you should really talk to them about it!”.

Now you might ask: why is this bad advice? And you might be right to think that it is in fact excellent advice! But think about it: Are you absolutely certain that in the case of these two people this is good advice? There is actually no way you can know that with absolute certainty.

But even if the advice is good, the mere fact that it has not been solicited has its own hidden dangers. These are the two most important ones:

  • We are assuming the other person is not capable of managing their own lives. We are putting ourselves in a superior position implying that we know better how the other person should be conducting their lives in terms of actions, thoughts or even emotions. By doing this we are creating a power dynamic with others (in which we win!) and at the same time we are avoiding the discomfort that comes with witnessing human pain. Avoiding this type of vulnerability is our biggest obstacle in creating authentic connections.

  • The other person is either a) going to feel patronised and antagonistic (or even hurt) and be resistant to your advice and become disconnected from you, or b) they will take your advice and be either way disempowered by it. If it works the credit goes to you and not to them. If things go south after your advice, the blame again goes to you.

On the other hand we know that we grow in life with the help of others and through the inspiration they give us. So how do we do it? How do we offer our perspective to other people without bulldozing them -and ourselves- with our super genius advice? Here are a few tips.

The obvious and simplest way is to ask “Do you want advice on this?” Or, the even more open and compassionate, and far more preferable, “How can I help?”/ “What can I do for you?”. This last one does magic for communication of all types. It gives the other person space and time to think about what they actually need from you. Also, it puts you in the actual position of being actually helpful, if you can, and it puts the other person on the driving seat, taking both responsibility and agency in relation to their problem.

As I said, getting out of the habit of constantly throwing our advice on others is not an easy business. It takes practice and conscious effort and we can tackle it simultaneously both internally and externally.

The internal way would be to look into our underlying subconscious issues. Be brave and investigate into the realms of your inner darkness and pain. Ask: Why am I doing this? Why do I need to fix things for others?

Do I feel insecure in my social interactions?

Do I have a need to feel important or needed?

Do I have to be smarter, stronger, wiser?

Do I have an agenda? Am I trying to get the other person to do something that I need?

Do I feel uncomfortable or unsafe when exposed to other people’s ( thus, also, my own) unhappiness, desperation, depression, sadness, confusion, anger, anxiety, weakness, conflict etc? (Is that why I jump in there to fix it?)

Combine this investigation with an external approach: tell your closest people that you want to change this habit. One of the trickiest things about it is that most of the times when we give unsolicited advice we do not even realise that we are doing it. So ask the people that you trust for their help. Tell them to let you know when they catch you doing it. (My closest friends have agreed to say the word “watermelon” every time they catch me giving out unsolicited advice!)

Even with all these efforts you are bound to relapse often and slip into the comforting habit of giving advice without being asked. When this happens, be kind to yourself and acknowledge the fact that this is a difficult habit to quit, especially because it is usually encouraged in our cultures and communities. I personally use a tool from Nichiren Buddhism which helps me a lot not to linger in my mistakes and my guilt: it is the concept of Hon-Nin-Myo, which means "from this moment forward". In the words of Edward Canfor-Dumas “This means to decide to make a new start and new causes for the future NOW; to refuse to allow the long shadow of the past to cast its darkness over everything […].” Or as I like to say : “ Auto-correct! No guilt! Correct it and move on”. You can correct it on the spot by saying something like “whoops! That was completely unsolicited! Please ignore my advice”. Or, if you realise it later, give yourself a pat on the back and say: “That is ok. I will try again next time”.

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