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Advice on Giving Advice to the Advice-Averse

PJAdvice columnist Belladonna Rogers on getting through to loved ones who don't want your — or anyone's — advice.

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Belladonna Rogers

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October 18, 2011 - 12:04 am
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Dear Belladonna Rogers,

I’m a 66-year-old divorced man in a great relationship with a 47-year-old divorced woman.  We don’t live together full time, but I adore her. My two grown children are very fond of her, too. Based on my personal and business experience, I can see that some of her decisions are unwise, particularly when it comes to her finances.

I’m positive that anything I say to address this aspect of her life will be unwelcome.  She’s a brilliant woman, very headstrong, and has been living on her own for much of her adult life.

Completely apart from our age difference, our life experiences are very different.  I know that I could give her excellent guidance, but I fear that in doing so,  I’d be on my way to unraveling our relationship.  By the same token, it’s very difficult to stand idly by and watch her make unwise decisions and say nothing.  I feel my own impatience rising within me — I’m not getting any younger — but this is one boat I’m afraid of rocking.

What should I do?

Smitten in Smithville, Texas

Dear Smitten,

You raise one of the most profound questions in human life: how does one help and guide another person who resists help and guidance?

Your question also highlights the fact that some people, regardless of age, are advice-adverse, while others are advice-friendly.

You make it clear that the woman in your life, “Jane,” is advice-adverse.  Those who are hostile to even the best-intentioned advice can nevertheless be advised, but he or she has to raise the issue first, and the counsel must be carefully couched in subtle, non-threatening questions rather than firmly delivered as advice.

As you’ve written, on the one hand we often believe — and often correctly — that our wisdom and experience can be helpful in preventing unwise or even dangerous consequences. At the same time, if the other person is also an adult, we understand that any advice could well be rebuffed, and could cause anything from a frisson of annoyance to a complete break in a relationship.

And frissons are nothing trivial.  They’re comparable to the fault lines underlying the surface of the Earth: they may have no discernible effects for a very long time, but they do have the continuing potential to produce “the big one” — a rupture of major proportions, turning a seemingly firm structure into a heap of rubble.

It’s one of the most difficult aspects of being in a loving relationship with an advice-averse person: remaining silent unless and until asked.

At best, unsought advice can fall on deaf ears, leading to the equivalent of what would have happened had one said nothing. Many advice-averse people take this to be their personal anthem:

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At worst, unsought advice can provoke a rebellious response, causing an outcome exactly the opposite of what the adviser sought to bring about.

ADVISING THE ADVICE-AVERSE: WALKING ON EGGSHELLS

I suggest that you wait, silently and patiently, until “Jane” mentions the topic of her finances.  I recommend against raising it yourself.  Since you’re already aware that she’s having such problems, it’s likely that one of these days she’ll say something like, “I’m really in trouble at the moment, because I’d like to do something that I just can’t afford.”

When she herself raises the subject, don’t interpret it an open invitation to present Jane with a list of your wise and helpful suggestions of what she should do immediately.

The approach I suggest places less emphasis on the words I’ll offer below than on a method of interacting with an advice-averse person.  Such people can be mighty prickly, and will invariably interpret advice as disapproval.  Your approach must take that into account.

Try to be as gentle as possible and also as detached and noncommittal as you can. Jane –like any advice-averse person — will be hypersensitive to the slightest implication that you view her situation as a flaw or as a failing of hers.

It’s essential to present your thoughts in such a way as to minimize the likelihood that she’ll feel hurt and angry, which will be her default responses. You’ll be walking on eggshells, but will have to appear to be shooting the breeze. Your role model for this exchange is a teddy bear, not a Marine drill sergeant.

I never said this would be easy.  It isn’t.

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