In the internet age, everyone and their dog is an expert on something. The beauty and the curse of the internet is that everyone has an opinion and is going to share it. And not only are we all going to share it, but we’re more convinced than ever of how right we are.
Our forum is becoming a lot more active and there are a lot of people giving advice. Some of it is great. Some of it isn’t. I’ve been a forum hound for as long as I can remember. And I built this entire business off of giving advice on forums. There are some common pitfalls that many people fall into when giving advice and it often undoes any help they intend on lending.
So I’ve come up with six basic principles to follow when giving others advice. I think these principles are widely applicable as well, whether you’re helping your nephew deal with bullies at school, or critiquing some guy’s Starcraft theory on a nerd forum, or giving someone life advice on our own site. If you genuinely want to help someone, I recommend the following:
1) Make sure the person actually wants advice. No type of advice is worse than unsolicited advice. No one is more likely to be ignored than a nosy know-it-all. Make sure the person you’re trying to help is actually looking for help, lest you come across as a condescending asshole.
Bad Advice Example: In response to someone excited about getting accepted to graduate school.
“Hey, that’s cool you got accepted, but honestly graduate school is a waste of money. The debt you incur is hardly worth the slight bump you may get on your resume. My cousin spent all this money on grad school, had no social life for years and now is stuck in a job he doesn’t like only because it pays well and can pay off his debt.
The only thing you’re helping here is the perception that you’re a dick.
2) Make sure you actually know what you’re talking about. The second biggest sin of advice-giving is giving someone advice when you don’t have the proper experience yourself. The person you’re trying to help may not notice, but I guarantee you people who DO have the experience WILL notice. And whether they say anything or not, you will lose credibility. As the old adage goes: “He who thinks he knows everything, learns nothing.”
If you don’t have experience but you do feel like you have an important or useful observation to make, then you should always qualify it by saying: “I’ve never had this problem before, but it seems to me…” or something similar before speaking or posting.
Classic Bad Advice Example: A virgin who’s read 20 books on dating advice telling some guy how to handle a conflict with his girlfriend.
3) Meet them where they are, not where you are. It’s difficult for many of us to step outside of ourselves and to imagine the place others may be stuck in. Many of us have the tendency to project our own issues and successes onto others even when it’s not warranted. Giving advice based on your life situation and not theirs is ineffective at best and embarrassing at worst.
Bad Advice Example: In response to someone talking about a petty argument with their sister.
“I hear you on having to deal with family members. One thing that you have to understand is that regardless of what they say, your family usually doesn’t actually care about you and will just do whatever they want. There was one time my brother borrowed my car and — etc.”
4) Psychoanalysis is not advice, it’s condescending. This seems to be the most common error on self development and dating forums. The worst part about this is that you may even be right, but you’re still not helping anybody. The quickest way to piss someone off and shut you out is to try and tell them who they are, why they’re having the thoughts they’re having, why they’re making the mistakes they’re making and so on. Things only get worse if you start making assumptions about their character, their life, or their past.
This relates to meeting people where they are, but just because you notice something doesn’t mean you have to fix it. If someone has an overly-negative attitude and thinks the world is against them, then telling them they have a negative attitude is not likely to help them. They’re going to perceive you to be condescending and just another part of that world that is aligned against them. The best way is to meet them where they are and answer their questions in the most simple way possible for them to understand.
Bad Advice Example: In response to someone complaining about how hard it is to make friends in their new town.
“Look, you obviously come from a screwed up background and now you’re viewing every opportunity in front of you as something you’re going to fail at before you even try. This is because you have low self esteem and your attitude and beliefs are only going to perpetuate it.”
This is a pitfall that I fall into the most often when giving advice, and it can easily push the person away from taking me seriously. It is useful to note that sometimes people ARE looking for specific observations on their mindsets and worldviews, and in those situations, advice like this is useful. But again, if they’re not looking for it, then giving it to them is not going go well.
5) Criticize their actions, not their character. Or as it’s more commonly known: love the sinner; hate the sin. It’s important to differentiate the actions of a person from their intentions. You’d be amazed how often people do stupid things with really noble intentions. Anyone who’s grown up with overly critical parents knows the sting of someone judging your character based on some mistake you made.
Bad Advice Example: In response to a guy saying something creepy to a woman.
My God, do you have no respect for women? Just stop trying to meet them altogether if that’s the way you’re going to go about it. That’s disgusting.”
6) People do not owe you anything. Just because you take the time to give someone advice does not mean they’re obligated to use it and it does not mean that they owe you any gratitude or anything in return. Too many times (particularly on forums) do I see someone who has given advice get upset that someone didn’t use it. They have no responsibility to use it. It’s their life. It’s their path. If what you say resonates with them, they will identify with it and try it out. If not, then they owe you nothing. Advice is a gift. And as a gift, it is given unconditionally, with nothing expected in return.
And with that, you can take the advice of this article and use it, or you may disregard it. Whichever you choose.