Giving good advice in any situation

Today, I’d like to share some of my secrets for giving solid, good advice, even in difficult situations. We quiet people tend to be good listeners and think (sometimes a great deal) before we speak, so we are often consulted. Beging asked for advice is a sign of trust and confidence, but it can also be uncomfortable and a great responsibility. Here’s what to say, how to cope, and how not to get blamed if things work out in unexpected ways.

A promising start

Most introverts are deep thinkers and good listeners, being the (comparatively) quiet type. Highly sensitive people are extremely good at empathising, reading moods and subtle shifts in body language. Either characteristic is very helpful in giving good advice, but the combination of being an introvert and HSP can be especially powerful. Traits which can be taxing and exhausting in everyday life become an invaluable asset in this situation! It has made me re-evaluate my sensitivity, at some point. I now think of it as a gift that comes at a price, rather than a drawback.

Even if you’re neither introverted nor highly sensitive, though, I’m sure these tips will help!

Acknowledge the problem first

I really cannot stress enough how important this is: Not everyone who comes to a friend with a problem wants advice.

There can be many other reasons for sharing problems. Maybe your friend needs to vent, maybe they need to talk it through to begin to make sense of it, maybe they feel the need to explain why they have been tired/stressed out/acting weird lately. Maybe they just need someone to acknowledge that they’re in a difficult spot right now.

So, whatever you do, acknowledge the problem first. Show compassion. “I see. That sucks!”, “How unfair!”, “I cannot imagine how difficult that must be” – you get the idea. It is important to show that you understand before busting out a possible solution. Why? Because, when you’re feeling bad, it helps to hear that you’re not just whiny, overly sensitive, or imagining things, but that someone else understands and agrees that, yes, this situation sucks. In fact, this simple acknowledgement is very often all people want when they share a problem. They just want someone else to know and understand. They need to hear that it’s okay to feel upset.

If you jump right to offering a solution, it can make your friend feel like you’re saying “That’s not a problem at all! It’s simple! I can think of half a dozen good strategies off the top of my head. Why are you so bothered by this thing? You really shouldn’t make such a fuss.” I know that this is probably not what you meant, but it can sound that way, regardless. So acknowledge the difficulty of their situation first. No matter whether it’s the terminal illness of a loved one or just a new haircut that looks terrible.

Good advice is wanted advice

Once you have acknowledged the problem, see how your friend continues the conversation. Do they seem relieved merely by talking about it? Do they want to move on to other subjects? Then they probably don’t specifically want advice. If you feel that they should definitely hear some anyway, proceed at your own risk. Sometimes people do need to hear a difficult truth from a friend, but be aware that this is what you’re doing – you’re pushing because you think you know best for them. Maybe you really do. Maybe you don’t. Either way, if you’re going to push, that conversation is going to be difficult, and possibly ugly.

If the other person dwells on the subject, however, wonders aloud what to do, begins bouncing ideas for possible solution off you, or openly asks for your opinion, you’re cleared to proceed. Your good advice is wanted.

Thoroughly understand the situation

Consider the situation carefully before suggesting a plan of action. Take your time to get a very clear idea of where you stand.

  • What has happened?
  • Why is your friend upset? (This is a biggie and may be very different from what first appears to be the case.)
  • Which basic options are there? Is it a matter in which they can or even need to take action, or is it something that your friend is powerless to change, but needs to process and learn to live with?
  • What is going to happen next, a) depending on your friend and b) regardless of their actions?
  • Which outcome does your friend wish for? It’s easy to presume you know, but maybe you would want something different out of the same situation than they do. So ask them.

Cover these aspects in your evaluation of the problem. Repeat what your friend has already told you – and listen carefully for any corrections or ammendations of points you may have misunderstood before. Ask about the parts you do not yet know, which will probably include the desired outcome.

Knowledge is power

Could be the motto of most introverts, right? It’s true, though. You cannot make a good plan or gauge the chances of its success without knowing all the facts. If you and your friend cannot piece together a complete picture of the situation, fill in the missing parts by consulting the internet, the library, or a professional in the field (doctor, lawyer, police, etc).

Work backwards from the goal

Once you have a clear idea of where your friend stands and where they want to go, you can start brainstorming solutions. Which options are open for getting from A to B? What are the advantages or drawbacks of each of these routes, and how realistic is it that this plan will lead to the desired outcome?

Help them see their options, not one definite strategy

One key element in giving good advice is knowing the difference between giving advice and making a choice. Your role is the former, not the latter. So suggest the different possible solutions you can see, and outline what is good or bad about each of them. You can add “If I were you, I’d go with…”, but it’s not your role to make the definite choice here. And it’s good to acknowledge that.You friend has the power and the responsibility of making the final decision.

Acknowledging this important for two reasons. One, your friend is feeling upset and overwhelmed. Making them feel in charge and aware of their power of choice helps. And two, if things go wrong, some people’s first impulse is to blame the advisor, ignoring that the advisor did not – and could not – make that final choice for them. So raise awareness in your friend that the responsibility for what they end up choosing is still their own.

Are both of you doing okay, emotionally?

Throughout the conversation, keep an eye on your friend to see how it’s going. They are placing a lot of trust in you and making themselves vulnerable by laying open their problems, so be considerate of their feelings. If you notice you said something that hurt them, ammend or explain. If you notice things are getting to much, stop or take a break. If something makes them happy, consider continuing in this direction – but do not give in to the temptation of telling them what they want to hear if you think it’s unwise.

And finally, also keep an eye on your own well-being. Are you comfortable discussing this topic? If not, be open with them. You can ask to avoid certain areas or particulars, or suggest someone else who might be able to handle the subject better. Feel free to ask for a break or to end the discussion if you get too uncomfortable.

Check back with them

It is good to show you are aware of the trust your friend has placed in you by asking your advice. So get back to them later and ask how things turned out. If it’s more difficult than it first seemed or if things went badly, listen to them again, offer company, a cup of tea, or an activity to take their mind off things, like watching a movie. And, if desired, offer more advice.

That’s it!

There we are. You now know all of my secrets about giving good advice. Speaking of which, I’ve also got two somewhat complementary posts on receiving bad advice, in case you’re interested.
What do you think? Do you have additions, thoughts, or points with which you disagree? Find it ironic that I stress the importance of giving wanted advice, but put a post about good advice up here on the blog all unasked for? Let me know! 😉

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