The Hazards of Unsolicited Advice-Giving

A reader writes:

What does it say about a person who is prone to offering others unsolicited advice without a polite prompting of the shift of conversation?

And why would the object of that unsolicited advice be understandably offended when other people treat him this way?

As a concrete example, I once served a guest in a fast food restaurant, and upon receiving his food a man smilingly said, “Take my advice” and proceeded to lecture me about changing my gloves to protect gluten-intolerant guests.

My own thought is that to be the object of this behavior indicates that I somehow need this advice, as if I couldn’t think for myself, which I would interpret as talking down to my intellect.

Dr. Hurd’s reply:

The root of any good advice — or principle — is logic. In practice this means that all good advice should have an “if-then” component.

Let’s start with your example. I notice this person lectured you about the supposed importance of wearing gloves for that purpose. He didn’t, presumably, talk in if-then terms. In other words, he didn’t attempt to provide any motivation for why you should be listening to him in the first place. For example, he might have stated, “If you wish to keep your job…” (assuming that wearing gloves for that purpose is a requirement.) Or, “You might not know this, but…” appealing to your possible sense of wishing to gain new knowledge. Or, “If you’d like to avoid unintentionally harming people, you might want to consider something.”

I don’t know about you, but even if I resented the unwarranted advice from a stranger, I’d still be much more likely to listen and consider than if somebody–out of context–begins to launch on a lecture. In the latter case, I would ignore the content of the lecture and simply think, “Who are you to start lecturing to me?

One of the most important aspects of human psychology is motivation. We’re not preprogrammed by instinct, as animals are. In order to act a certain way, we must first choose to act — and, since most action requires thought, we must first choose to think. In order to think and act by choice, we must possess, establish and (as necessary) reestablish motivation.

Human lives and human history are littered with examples of attempting to get around rational motivation. Dictators and authoritarian types do it by attempting to get others to act a certain way by force of law. Criminals do it by attempting to defraud or otherwise coerce people into acting a particular way.

But family members, bosses, loved ones and even we — ourselves– make the same mistake every day. We attempt to motivate ourselves with dogmatic, empty or meaningless “shoulds” without ever establishing the if-then connection.

For example, “If you want to complete your degree, you have to keep up the studying.” This is a lot more motivating — and a lot more true — than the command, “Study.”

Or, “If you want to keep getting your paycheck, and buy the things you require or want, you have to go to work today.” This is a lot more motivating — and a lot more accurate — than the command, “Go to work.”

This improper motivation often starts in childhood. Then the child grows up and passes it along to others. I often think of the example from a friend who told me his mother did not motivate him this way. When he wanted to stay up late to watch a show, she wouldn’t say, “No.” She would say, “You can stay up late in this case. But you are still getting up to go to school.” Rather than giving him an empty requirement, she told him of the choice/consequences and required him to think it out.

Sometimes out of context commands, at least to oneself, are acceptable — provided the if-then context has already been well-established in one’s mind.

The problem with unsolicited advice is that it establishes no context. It simply presumes that, “You require advice, and I’m the one to provide it,” without any pre-established motivation.

You’re entirely right to take offense at the unsolicited advice, whether it comes from a stranger or from a person closer to home.

However, the motivation is not always malevolent. Sometimes the advice-giver really is interested in the pursuit of objective truth, and hopes to impart the same to you. The failure to establish context arises from (1) poor communication skills, and possibly (2) a lack of appreciation for the human requirement to act on rational, logical motivation.

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