Years ago, someone stole my credit-card info. I did what you’re supposed to do when that happens: Call my bank, cancel the card, request a new one. When I later mentioned my stolen card to a co-worker, he cut me off mid-sentence to insist I do three things immediately: Call my bank, cancel the card, request a new one.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” I told him. Unfortunately, I was too soft-spoken for my reply to register as sarcasm — even though I’ve had plenty of practice in this particular situation. In spite of my age and experience, I seem to be a magnet for unsolicited advice that is often obvious (You’re going to Europe? Make sure to get a passport!) and sometimes flat-out wrong (You’re going to Europe? Make sure to get a visa!). You know that frustrating feeling when tech support asks if you’ve tried turning it on and off? That’s my life. It’s the quiet person’s ongoing struggle: Unlike our more extroverted counterparts, we’re typically more reserved and better listeners, which may give the impression that we need help making up our minds.
“Someone may assume a shy person needs input or is looking for help with something. They may offer unsolicited advice because they assume the individual is too shy to ask for their opinion,” says Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. “People may also think a quiet person doesn’t have an opinion, so they may offer unsolicited advice as a way to give them ideas.” There’s also something more sinister going on: “Unsolicited advice may be an attempt at dominance,” Morin says. “Telling someone what to do or how to do things differently sends a message that says, ‘I know more than you.’”
Unsurprisingly, gender dynamics often play a role. In a 1987 University of Pennsylvania study examining the relationship between the way people talk and their likelihood of doling out unsolicited advice, the authors noted that in general, the women in the study were “more polite,” using speech patterns that indicated weakness and uncertainty. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to use assertive speech patterns. They were also more likely to give unsolicited advice. The researchers reported that “gender does not come into conflict with that of status for female students. However, gender not only conflicts with status and speech situations involving male students, but in fact overrides it. This results in first-year male students giving unsolicited advice to a female of higher status.”
The disappointing bottom line is, if you don’t speak assertively, people tend to assume they’re more knowledgeable or experienced than you are, even if you have rank. “If the shy person seems indecisive, or is stumbling on his or her words, it may seem like an open door for others to jump in with their opinions,” says communication consultant and public speaking coach Amy Castro. “Body language that looks hesitant, weak, or helpless can also cause the advice givers of the world to feel it’s their duty to step in and take control of the situation.”
It’s easy to see how this could become a real problem — like if you’re an introverted or shy person in a high position of power, for example, and have a dominant, extroverted subordinate who mistakenly thinks you don’t know what you’re doing and undermines you. Even if it’s just a simple frustration, though, unsolicited advice is just that — frustrating. Here are a few tips for how to handle it when you’re constantly on the receiving end.
Don’t take it personally.
Sometimes, Castro says, the advice giver is talking simply to reinforce his or her own intelligence or competence; they need any set of ears to listen to them, and yours happened to be available. This is why shy people often become a target for unsolicited advice from family members and friends: “Because these people know the shy person well, they know he or she will be unlikely to contradict the advice or fight the advice-giving,” says Castro.
Or they may be projecting. When I was 22, for example, an older friend had been on a series of bad dates and urged me to settle down as soon as possible. The dating pool was a shallow one, he said; it wasn’t hard to see that his advice was more about his own frustrations. “What’s funny about those who give unsolicited advice is that they are less concerned about the advice being followed than they are about having their say,” Castro added — a vent disguised as helpful instructions. When you realize that the advice isn’t about you at all, the situation becomes a little easier to stomach.
Recognize when it’s actually coming from a good place.
Not all unsolicited advice is bad. A stranger once told me my tire looked a little low, for example. I had no idea, and even though I hadn’t asked, I was grateful for the input. “It’s important to take a few minutes to think about advice before automatically following it or instinctively tuning it out,” Morin suggested. “Examine the person’s motivation in giving you that advice.” Is it genuine concern, or is it a display of authority?
In her communication programs, Castro suggests asking the following additional questions to help people weed out good advice from bad, whether it’s solicited or not: Is the advice giver qualified to offer the advice? Have you heard the same advice before? Is the advice factual, or just opinion? And finally, what are the consequences of taking, or not taking, the advice?
“Once we’ve asked ourselves these questions, it usually becomes more clear about whether the advice is good and we should follow it, whether it is bad advice, or whether it’s just not helpful or useful at this time,” Castro says.
Move on quickly.
Those who routinely give unsolicited advice, Castro says, probably don’t expect and definitely don’t want you to challenge them, or to point out that their advice is unwarranted or wrong. Especially if you’re normally a soft-spoken person, this confrontation can be surprising for the advice giver and uncomfortable for you.
Which is why it’s understandable that you might want to just end the encounter as quickly and painlessly as possible. It’s easy enough to nod and smile, diplomatically thank the person for their two cents, then do with it what you will, even if that means ignoring it.
“One of the easiest responses to give that will end the conversation quickly is to simply say, ‘You may be right,’ and then move on,” Castro suggests. “This noncommittal response will appease the advice giver, while not giving away your power because you’re not saying that you accept the advice as correct or will take any action on the advice.”
Shut it down.
The problem is that the get-it-over-with tactic doesn’t do much to change the behavior of people who don’t take you seriously or can’t seem to mind their own business. If you want a slightly more direct approach, you can acknowledge the person’s advice and tell them you won’t be taking it. Castro suggests something like, “That’s an option, but I think my plan will work just as well” or “Thanks. If I need help or any advice, I’ll be sure to come see you.”
But if your goal is to really put an end to a pattern of unsolicited advice, you may need to let the person know more clearly that you don’t want any more of it. “If you choose this option, be sure to respond calmly, firmly, kindly, and without sarcasm,” Castro says. She suggests saying something like, “I understand you’re trying to help, but I’m comfortable with the way I’m doing X. I’d rather not talk about other options again” or simply, “Thank you, but I don’t need advice.”
Morin says the key is to respond in a way that maintains your own personal power: “Don’t follow someone else’s advice unless you want to do so. Manage your emotions so you don’t lose your cool,” she tells me. “Regulate your own thoughts so you don’t automatically assume someone else’s opinion is more valid than your opinion.”
That’s just good advice.