4 Things to Do Instead (and no, it's not 'Be Quiet')..
We’ve all been there.
You’re in a conversation at a party with someone you barely know. Let’s call this person Assuming-new-kid-on-the-block. You share an anecdote about the lazy co-worker (who somehow gets paid more than you) that drives you up a wall. The story barely escapes your lips and this newcomer pounces like a jackrabbit during mating season. It’s a word salad of ‘ignore him’ + ‘you’re better than him anyways’ + ‘here are ways you can motivate him’ + ‘he probably had a hard life’ + ‘why don’t you just drive him crazy back’ + ‘there’s this guy at my work who does the same thing and here’s how I handle him..’ YAWN. You’re 10 minutes into the monologue and Assuming-new-kid-on-the-block is off-base and unaware. How can someone be so confident to weigh in on a situation when they know only .01% of you and nothing about the key players? You’re looking for the exit ramp, and not soon enough.
Or how about this scene. The person who’s been in your life for a while but hasn’t earned the right to speak into it. Let’s call this individual Disengaged-old-kid-on-the-block. She has been around for a while but hasn’t really invested in you in any concrete way. She could be a family member, a colleague, a childhood friend. She hasn’t taken the time to get to know you, to understand you on an even quasi-deep level. She never actually leaves though, like a late winter cold that just lingers. You happen to mention that your car is having trouble starting. Disengaged-old-kid-on-the-block suddenly becomes WebMD for automobiles and tells you what is wrong with the car, different ways to fix it, and at the end of the conversation, even suggests that you sell the car and buy something new. As soon as this person starts talking, you tune them out. ‘We’ve been here before,’ you think. How can someone be so oblivious to the fact that you don’t value their advice and never have due to their lack of investment? You’re looking for the aspirin bottle, stat.
While the advice-giver of both scenarios is different, the outcome is the same: you don’t take the advice. In fact, you might be tempted to do the exact opposite. After this onslaught of unsolicited advice you feel agitated, bewildered, and burdened with a desperate desire to shower the interaction right off of you.
What’s so wrong with unsolicited advice?
Stop assuming you know people so well. Assume, instead, that people are complex and mysterious, and that maybe, perhaps, you know very little about the situation. Pride comes before a fall, and baby, you’re tripping all over yourself.
The majority of the time, people don’t want answers or advice, they just want to vent. Get in the habit of asking ‘What do you want right now: advice or someone to listen?’ 90% of the time it’s the latter. When someone is sharing something with you, the last thing they usually want is advice. Which leads me to the next point..
It’s based on a wrong understanding of human need.
People don’t want to be fixed, they want to be known. Deep in the heart of every human being is the desire to be seen and loved anyway. When I share a small, undesirable part of my life with you, it’s not so that you can ‘fix’ it, it’s so that you can stand in the space with me and witness it. So you can see me and know me in a deeper way. Humans aren’t problems to be fixed they’re mysteries to be unravelled - beautifully, reverently, unravelled.
Tell me, when was the last time someone asked you for advice? If you can’t remember, chances are you’re an advice offender who gives it too freely and unearned. People don’t respect you enough to seek your advice. That may sound harsh, but it’s the truth.
So how do I position myself to be sought out for advice? (aka how do I stop being that guy that no one listens to?)
Shift from advice to interest.
The following four strategies will help you communicate interest:
1. Ask follow-up questions.
Get curious. Assume you know very little (in general). Ask the person follow-up questions. Some examples with our co-worker scenario would be:
2. React with them.
This one’s my favorite. Pretend you’re in the scene with them. Some examples with the car scenario would be:
3. Make observations.
If you’ve done it right and asked enough follow-up questions, you’ll start gathering impressions about the situation. These impressions may or may not be right. It’s helpful to verbalize these impressions and see how your friend reacts. Some examples would be:
4. Seek what they need.
This one’s simple. Ask: ‘What would help you most in this situation?’ I’ve always been astounded by the sheer arrogance of people assuming they know what other people want or need in a situation. Last time I checked, omniscience was not part of the human genome. When someone is explaining a problem they are having at work or in their personal life, it is to our credit to say ‘I want to help. What do you need most right now?’ Most of the time you’ll hear responses like:
Notice the common thread in all four strategies: the focus remains on the person and not on you. If we’re really honest, too often our advice comes from a place of self-absorption, of turning the conversation back to ourselves (our most favorite topic by far!). When a friend is sharing something they are struggling with, it’s imperative to keep the focus on them and what they need. It shows restraint, it communicates respect, and it will make them feel safe & seen. Oh & you best bet that once you establish a pattern of this kind of response, they will start seeking you out for advice.
It’s worth noting that not all strategies work on everyone. You may have people in your life where the first three strategies work like gold, but the last one is a real turn-off. That’s okay. Get comfortable with social experimentation to see which strategies work best with those in your circle. Remember, the goal is for our loved ones, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances to feel known and valued. The little gaffes along the way are worth the relational reward.
If advice is the oxygen you breathe, take a moratorium on it for a week. Just try it. In its place, implement your own unique blend of the 4 strategies. It may feel unnatural or odd at first, but stick with it. This approach will convey interest, communicate care, and deepen your influence. And the fact that you’ll be sought out for advice? Icing on the cake. 😉
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