Usually we mean so well. We watch a dear friend or a familymember saying or doing things and we think they are utterly mistaken. We take a moment and give them our heartfelt advice. Of course, we as good friends are valuable, having the nerve to tell us what we think, instead of keeping it to ourselves or venting our frustration behind our friend´s back. Our friend may really appreciate our honesty, concern and empathy with us and think over what has just been said and take action accordingly.
Many times however, giving advice is not appreciated. Especially unsolicited advice can affront people and give them stress. Even if we have the best intentions and truly want to help. Then why can advice offend people? It’s good to comtemplate our true need behind our desire to give advice. We may want to give advice because is gives us something: emotional validation. Wanda Thibodeaux writes in an article on Inc.com: ‘A set of four studies led by Michael Schaerer looked at how giving advice influences a person's sense of power. (…) Taken together, these studies indicate that, even if you're not actively out to take the reins over others, giving advice can make you feel like you have some sway, which helps you feel more powerful. And if the idea of more power makes you drool, you're probably more likely to look for opportunities to tell others what to do’. Now there is an entirely different reason behind your giving advice, even though you may not be aware of what you are doing.
A client told me a little while ago she got some unsolicited advice. She enthusiastically told her family that within a couple of years she will likely migrate with her husband to Canada, her husband’s native country. A lot of thought has been put into this decision and for them it’s what they really want to do, they are dreaming about their future together in Vancouver. Then she was told by her mother, quite unexpectedly, that this may not be a good idea. That when she grows older and inevitably one day will get less mobile, she may deeply regret her decision and miss her old friends and family and then it won’t be so easy to travel back and forth. My client knows perfectly well her decision has its downsides, what her mother said may be partly true, but overall her choice makes her happy because there is a lot she wants to do in her new country and besides, she wants to know her husband’s family and country better and not only stay in her own native country. He too has friends and family over there that he misses dearly. She responded more or less with these arguments, and that she’s a grown-up and can make choices for herself, and can change things when needed. At night however, she couldn’t sleep, she felt angry and manipulated by her mother and vowed that other people have no say over her future. She realised there is within her a vulnerable child that feels overpowered by others when they are acting like they know better. A bit later, she came to realize that this unsolicited advice didn’t have so much to do with her, but with feelings of insecurity and need to control of her mother.
You as an expat may have experienced these type of arguments. Linda A. Janssen cites a couple of expats in her book The emotionally resilient expat that had a real tough time with their families. In suddle and less suddle ways they were made feel guilty for their migration overseas. It took a lot of pain, soul searching and talks to friends in their new country to finally understand that in their families everyone needed to live nearby and it was simply not done to move away. Moving abroad was like betraying the family. This was so important to these families, that they would not settle for family members thinking differently. The couple worked their way through this uncomfortable situation and eventually choose for their own happiness, which they had found overseas. They are still in contact with their families, but they set clear boundaries and avoid certain topics of conversation.
Of course advice is needed at times. Children and teenagers for instance, need our advice as they still are learning and need us as parents or caretakers, though we must be aware to keep an open communication with them. And then sometimes we do ask people´s advice, and then it is perfectly normal to help out our friends as best as we can.
What to do when you are given unsolicited advice? You need to set your boundaries. Find out what feels good for you and what not and communicate your wish, taking other people and situations into account if possible. You may say that you appreciate getting another perspective on the situation and will consider it, but that for now you have a plan of your own. Always show compassion for the person giving you advice, it probably comes out of the goodness of their heart and remember, they may not even be aware of their need, however small, to get approval.
When you are the one giving advice, Wanda Thibodeaux mentions in her article three valuable clues: balance your advice with positive judgments or observations; if you want to give unsolicited advice, politely ask permission; and remember that the need for power shouldn't be an all-consuming driver in your life.
Maybe the safest thing to do is to try to avoid giving unsolicited advice all together. There is a memory aid in Dutch that says: ‘Laat OMA thuis’ (translated: leave your grandmother home). OMA stands for Oordelen (to judge), Meningen (to give your opinion) and Aannames/Adviezen (to assume or to give advice). So next time you feel inclined to give unsolicited advice, remember to leave your grandmother in the house.