The Trouble with Giving and Getting Unsolicited Advice

“Most of us are experts at solving other people’s problems, but we generally solve them in terms of our own, and the advice we give is seldom for other people but for ourselves.” –Nan Fairbrother, The House in the Country

I’ve been thinking a lot about advice lately. I found myself getting defensive the other day when a friend offered unsolicited advice about something. It wasn’t the first time I’d asked her to refrain from doing this. Later I got curious about advice and advice-giving.

My online research included the following items (others in Resources, below):

  • Psychology Today article talked about the reasons people offer unsolicited advice, including grandiosity, lack of self-awareness and a need to control. The behavior can be compulsive.
  • A piece in PsychCentral stated, “Repeatedly giving unsolicited advice can contribute to relationship problems. It’s disrespectful and presumptive to insert your opinions and ideas when they may not be wanted.” It added that unsolicited advice “often feels critical rather than helpful.”
  • According to an article in Innovaist, “Giving advice can feel great, but neuroscience tells us that unsolicited advice is considered the second greatest threat to the amygdalae.” The amygdalae are the reptilian parts of the brain whose function is to ensure our survival by detecting danger and telling us to either flee or fight.

No wonder I felt defensive with my friend!

I was also curious about advice because the model of coaching I’m learning, through Coach Training Alliance (CTA), emphasizes active listening and asking powerful questions to help clients to surface their own insight and solutions. CTA coaches do not offer advice unless specifically requested.

Research I found affirmed this kind of coaching. Studies have shown that when someone feels deeply heard and validated, they relax, fear and anger subside, and hormones associated with positive emotions are released. As a result, openness to new ideas and access to intuition increase. When a coach asks questions from a place of compassion and curiosity, people feel invited to go below the surface and explore their values, beliefs and motivations. Stressful situations become challenges, and answers begin to emerge. Research found that solutions bubbling up from one’s own intuition are much more likely to be put into place than those offered by a website, a friend, your spouse or anyone else.


My mentor coach and nonprofit consultant Rita Sever in 2015 wrote about the different ways a workplace supervisor might respond to a staffer with a job challenge. Here’s an excerpt:

“Examples of a Take Charge Supervisor’s Response Examples of a Partner Supervisor’s Response
“Here’s what you need to do.” “Tell me what’s going on.”
“Follow these steps and you’ll be fine.” “What are your options?”
“It’s your job to know what to do.” “What are you considering?”
“I’ll take care of it.” “How can I help?”

“The responses in the first column tell the staff member that the supervisor will take over so don’t bring any concerns, ideas or problems to him/her unless the staff member is absolutely stuck and needs help. They tell the staff member that the supervisor does not care about the staff member’s learning or ideas, but only about the outcome…. The responses in the second column tell the staff member that the supervisor is available to help, but trusts that the staff member has ideas and thoughts about the situation. Most of all, these responses tell the staff member that the supervisor will listen to them.”  (Thanks, Rita, for permission to use this excerpt.)

In the same way a “partner supervisor” supports an employee, a coach can guide a client to their own wisdom. Instead of offering suggestions, a coach might ask:

  • “That sounds really hard. Can you say more about this?”
  • “What have you already thought about doing?”
  • “Do you have any insight into what’s behind this situation?”
  • “What might it look like to see yourself handling this well?”

I’ve been practicing this model for a couple of months now. Everyone I’ve coached has reached a deeper understanding of their issue and reported feeling more confident. Even more remarkable, all said that within a single 45-60 minute session, they walked away with practical steps to implement right away!

The following 600-year-old quote underscores this notion: “You cannot teach a person anything. You can only help them to learn it within themselves.” — Galileo

Invitation: I partner with social sector leaders to clarify priorities and set boundaries to avoid burnout and thrive. Are you facing a work situation that’s keeping you up at night? Perhaps you’re not taking steps to advance an important goal you’ve set. A thought partner who listens deeply and asks good questions can help you surface your own insights and solutions, removing obstacles on the path to your dreams. Reach out to set up your free sample coaching session soon! (My email address here is encrypted; be sure to include your email.)

Image: Young woman in business attire with hands extended in a defensive “stop” gesture. DMEPhotography, iStock