SSS #4: Thoughts on Giving / Receiving Advice


When someone tells me about their problems, my initial reaction is to provide a list of solutions. Over the past few years, (since marriage specifically) I’ve realized this is a flawed approach. What I’m about to share will sound like preachy unsolicited advice. Please don’t take it that way. Instead, imagine I wrote a set of guidelines for myself and you happened to stumble upon it.

On Giving Advice:

Rule #1 on giving advice: Don’t. Do not give someone advice unless they explicitly ask for it. It is egotistical to assume someone wants or needs your help just because they are sharing their story with you. At the very least, offer to help before “going out of your way” to provide it.

Old Me vs. New Me:

Old me: Hey dude, how are things going? What’s new?

Friend: Hey! I’m doing OK for the most part… My girlfriend just got this big new job, which is great! I’m so happy for her... but we aren’t seeing each other as much, and it’s taking a toll on our relationship…Lots of bickering about stupid stuff...

Old me: Oh… Well you can just break up with her. Or maybe move in with her. Or you guys can sacrifice something else to make more time for each other....

@Old me...ugh. Jumping straight into problem solving mode. How disappointing. What does new me have to say?

New me: I’m sorry you’re going through that. It can’t be easy. How do you think she feels about this new situation - have you discussed how you’re feeling with her?

What a difference! How much better is new me vs. old me? New me is approaching Dr. Phil status. Old me is basically Draco Malfoy.

Let’s quickly analyze the difference in approach. Old me is blindly offering solutions without any context. New me is empathetic (I’m sorry you’re going through that. It can’t be easy), and concerned (How do you think she feels?).

The difference in approach goes a long way. Old me is conversation ending and off-putting: I risk my friend not sharing their concerns with me in the future. New me is warm and conversation stimulating. Who do you think my friend will appreciate more?

The next step in the process is actively listening.

Listening vs. Hearing:

We all know the difference between listening and hearing. Listening is active. Hearing is passive. Listening turns into understanding. Hearing turns into forgetting.

"If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

  • Stephen Covey, Author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Most people are in a rush to get their point across. We prepare our reply as the other person is speaking, causing us to miss the other half of any given conversation. If you want to improve your listening + comprehension skills try reiterating what the other person is saying and finishing with a question.

Going back to the example above of my friend having relationship issues. An appropriate or helpful thing to say could be: “You’re upset about the new direction you’re relationship is going because of your girlfriend’s new job. Is there anything else?”

Dig deeper. Peel the onion. Find out the next layer of his concern. He may be feeling insecure because her new role is in a male dominant environment. He may be feeling insecure because her new job pays more than his. He may be feeling like he doesn’t want to be in a relationship with someone who constantly puts work first. Find out by asking some form of the question, “is there anything else?”

Provide Guidance, Not Direction:

When someone comes to me with an issue, I like to provide resources. It could range from a book I read to a software I use to a podcast I listened to.


There are two reasons I guide people to resources rather than provide direction.

  1. I take it personally when someone explicitly asks me for advice and doesn’t follow my directions. It feels like a huge waste of time. I’m actively trying to get over this.
  2. Teaching someone how to fish is better than giving them a fish. Empowering someone to solve their own problems is better than solving their problems for them.

Share From Experience, Not From Conjecture:

If the resources provided are not enough, and the person in trouble explicitly asks for advice, oblige responsibly. Draw from an experience that’s similar to what they are going through and describe how you handled it. You can go on to share the outcome, what you could have done differently, and anything else you learned in hindsight.

Use the following prompt when giving advice based on experience: “I faced a similar decision once. Here’s what happened and how I handled it...”

If you have never been in a similar situation, but your counterpart insists you help them, you can start with this instead:

“I’ve never been in this type of situation. I don’t have all the context, but here’s what I think I’d do considering what you’ve told me so far…”

This type of response sounds like a typical “CYA” disclaimer. It definitely is! More importantly, it’s calling out the fact that the advice you’re about to give is based on incomplete information. The receiving party should take what you’re about to say with a grain of salt and act accordingly.

Too many people are handing out prescriptive advice as if they’ve studied the problem at hand for years on end. Don’t be that person. Newsflash: no one knows the right answer. We are all just doing the best we can with what we have.

Suffocate Victim Mentality; Never Attend a Pity Party:

“If you’re born poor, that’s not your fault. If you die poor, that’s your fault.” We are all in control of our lives. Yes, bad things happen. Some of us experience much worse than others. We are a product of circumstance. However, the evidence is clear: if someone who looks like you, or has been through similar circumstance has “made it”, you can too.

Victim mentality is an acquired personality trait in which a person tends to recognize or consider themselves as a victim of the negative actions of others, and to behave as if this were the case in the face of contrary evidence of such circumstances.

Common Examples of Victim Mentality:

“I can’t lose weight because healthy food is expensive”

“I can’t get a job because no one is hiring anyone without a college degree”

“I’ll never find love because no one wants to date someone who looks like me”

All of these challenges are real. Yes, healthy food is generally more expensive. Yes, companies are looking for the best qualified candidates. Yes, physical attraction is often a barrier to falling in love. But then again, people in a far worse position than you have gone on to succeed against greater odds. Look hard enough and all excuses can be removed.

I recommend Stoic philosophy to people suffering from a victim mentality. The main premise of Stoicism is delineating what’s directly in your control vs. what’s out of your control. Transition from external locus of control to internal locus of control. Read anything by Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Ryan Holiday, or Jocko Willink.

I love helping people who are looking to get better. It’s nearly impossible for me to entertain someone who starts off by thinking they’re beyond being helped and the world is working against them.

On Receiving Advice:

This is a reminder to be careful of who you take advice from. There are two specific rules I like to apply when seeking advice from anyone:

  1. Find someone with a track record of success in the area you need help.
  2. Don’t ask a sedentary person about exercise routines.
  3. Don’t ask someone with mountainous credit card debt about personal finance
  4. Don’t ask a single person about marriage advice
  5. Don’t ask for parenting tips from someone with no kids
  6. Advice from someone who is invested in / affected by your success should be weighed heavier than someone who isn’t. Incentives should be aligned.
  7. Close friends & family are typically invested in your success.
  8. Business partners, colleagues, etc. as well.
  9. Strangers seldom have to suffer the consequences of your decisions.
  10. Their advice should be taken lightly.

Wrapping Up:

I grew up in an environment where everyone had a public opinion about what other people were going through: good or bad. Judgement disguised as advice was traded like currency. Reframing my mindset around helping people achieve their goals is still a work in progress for me.

Along the way, I learned that “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”. That mantra lead me to be a know-it-all solution generating machine. It didn’t take long to realize that’s the other side of the same crappy coin.

I’m now in the phase of learning how to listen better, dig deeper, and guide my inner-circle to their desired outcome rather than prescribe a solution based on incomplete information. There’s much more to learn on this topic, and I look forward to doing so.