The Dangers of Giving Advice


I made the mistake recently of giving someone advice, specifically unsolicited advice. It was a rookie move, and one I used to make a lot. I’ve avoided it for a long time, and for the very reason that seems to have befallen me now: I think it may have cost me a friend. To those of you who believe that giving advice, even well-intentioned advice, is a good thing or a noble act, I would like to take this opportunity to caution you against it and explain why exactly it’s a very, very bad idea.

First, chances are that the person you are speaking with is not looking for advice. They want to vent. This is a perfectly normal human need, and one that friends are supposed to fill. The desire to make things better is a strong one for a lot of us, maybe even most of us, but it is an egotistical, maybe even arrogant one. Consider: you are asserting that, given your limited knowledge of the situation, you can offer a solution that will make things better that they have not tried, that they can and will implement, and that won’t cost more than they are willing to invest. Looking at it that way, even if they are asking for advice, are you really qualified to give it?

Second, if they aren’t asking for advice and you try to offer it anyway, you’ve just communicated (either directly or indirectly) that you are not really interested in them, you are interested in yourself. I know that sounds backwards, but it goes back to what I said above. You’re more focused on how you would handle the situation they are in, not in how the situation is affecting them. Your focus is on satisfying your emotional needs in this situation, not theirs. Not the best message to send when someone has made themselves vulnerable to you.

Third, and this is the big one, there’s no win here for either of you. Let me lay some basic game theory on you. I see eight possible outcomes in this situation:

  1. They take your advice, things work out, and they give you no credit. You resent them for not acknowledging your part.
  2. They take your advice, things work out, and they give you all the credit. Now they start to rely on you to fix their problems in the future.
  3. They take your advice, things don’t work out, and they give you the blame. Suddenly it’s your fault.
  4. They take your advice, things don’t work out, but they don’t blame you. You still feel like an ass.
  5. They don’t take your advice, things work out. You feel like an idiot for giving bad advice, but no harm done.
  6. They don’t take your advice, things don’t work out, and they wish they had taken your advice. See #2.
  7. They don’t take your advice, things don’t work out, and they somehow blame you. Don’t ask me how this works, but I’ve seen it happen. You’re still at fault.
  8. They don’t take your advice, things work out. You have enough self-confidence to shrug it off and say “looks like I was wrong.” No harm, no foul.

Maybe I’m overlooking some possibilities, but the way I see it there’s a 1-in-8 chance of a desirable outcome, and that one outcome can be more easily achieved by not giving advice in the first place. All of the undesirable outcomes can be avoided by… why look at that: not giving advice in the first place.

This is compounded by the fact that most advice comes in the form of blatantly banal and pointless platitudes that are only useful to the people who don’t need them. Things like “be yourself”, “fight for what you believe in”, or “never be afraid to speak your mind”. Here’s the advice that should accompany all of those that nobody ever seems to give and everyone needs to internalize: actions have consequences. Feel free to “be yourself”, but if that means having multiple body piercings, visible tattoos, and a blue mohawk, you need to know that will limit your job opportunities. You can “fight for what you believe in”, but be aware that reasonable people can disagree vociferously about issues they feel passionately about, and that doesn’t make them evil or wrong; it simply means they disagree, and a refusal to compromise will get you nowhere. You can “speak your mind” as much as you want, but that doesn’t mean people will like what you have to say, nor does it mean you won’t be held accountable for having said it.

Which brings me back to where I started. I was myself; I spoke my mind; I gave advice; and those actions have had very real consequences. Once upon a time that friend read this column, and maybe still does. If so, I hope there’s still room for forgiveness. If not, I’ll live with the consequences. Because that’s who I am, and I’m not afraid to be myself.

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8 Comments on “The Dangers of Giving Advice”

  1. Praveen says:

    Sometimes there would be an argument or discussion and one friend will be adamant on his position.Then only thing i would say is,’You are right in your perspective but do you accept the consequences & wouldn’t blame anyone?’….If they say ‘Yes’.Discussion ends there, but i will find them in utter disbelief sometimes after that.

  2. rachel bar says:

    Seems like you’re not afraid to be yourself, but sometimes you regret it?
    An excellent and thorough overview of how bad and sometimes destructive advice giving can be. I could add more, but the one that is quite common is when people begin sharing with you less and less, because they simply don’t want to listen to you…

    • Bob Bonsall says:

      I’m not afraid to be myself, but I’ve learned that sometimes it’s best to keep myself to myself. Usually I try to let people get out what they need to say, and while I may feel free to offer an opinion on their behavior (I don’t condone idiocy) I don’t usually offer advice, solicited or otherwise.

  3. Tricia Soberanis says:

    Saved as a favorite, I love your web site!

  4. cannopener says:

    Hmm, paradoxical. You’re advising us all not to give advice?

    This is really good advice though. I think I’ll come back to you for help in future… :)

    • Bob Bonsall says:

      Hey, it’s called My Not So Humble Opinion for a reason. ;)

      But seriously, the main thrust is to be careful in giving advice, and never give unsolicited advice. The costs are high and the rewards are low in either case; in the latter case the costs just go up exponentially.

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