Unsolicited Advice

Unsolicited Advice: What It Is and How to Avoid It

Are you guilty of giving unsolicited advice? Advice is usually intended to be helpful. And many of us (myself included) offer guidance and suggestions, even tell others what they should do, without being asked.  Regardless of our intentions, giving advice that isn’t wanted, can be annoying, intrusive, and even manipulative.

In this article, we’ll explore why we give unsolicited advice, how to tell when we’ve crossed the line from helping to harming, and how to stop giving unwanted advice.

What is unsolicited advice?

Unsolicited advice is guidance or information that wasn’t asked for.

Katerina confides in her mother about her boyfriend’s infidelity. Her mother tells her that cheating is a deal-breaker and she should break-up with him because it will only get worse. Katerina feels judged and unsupported by her mother.

David gives his teenage son, Jack, detailed directions about which bus routes to take to his job interview. Jack thinks his father sees him as incapable and stupid.

Shelly overhears a stranger talking about difficulty losing her “baby weight”. Shelly excitedly tells the stranger about her own weight loss and how the Keto diet is the healthiest and fastest way to lose weight. The stranger feels annoyed and confused by Shelly’s boldness.

Sometimes it’s given in a less direct or passive-aggressive way.

Beverly leaves Alcoholics Anonymous pamphlets and self-help books about addiction around the house as a not-so-subtle message that she thinks her wife needs to drink less. Her wife feels angry and is tired of Beverly’s nagging.

What’s wrong with giving unsolicited advice?

Giving advice when it’s asked for can be helpful, but unsolicited advice is another story.

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. Unsolicited advice can even communicate an air of superiority; it assumes the advice-giver knows what’s right or best.

Unsolicited advice often feels critical rather than helpful. If it’s repetitive it can turn into nagging.

Unsolicited advice can also undermine people’s ability to figure out what’s right for them, to solve their own problems.

Giving unsolicited advice can be a frustrating experience for the advice-giver, as well. When our advice isn’t taken or appreciated, we often feel upset, hurt, or resentful.

Why do we give unsolicited advice?

You’re probably wondering why people give so much unsolicited advice if it’s so problematic.

Here are some of the reasons for giving unsolicited advice:

  • We want to be helpful.

  • We want to get someone to do what we want or what we think is right.

  • We think we have the answers, that we know more than others.

  • We’re excited about a new product, idea, or service and want to share it.

  • We want to reduce our own anxiety. Sometimes we’re really worried about a loved one and feel powerless. We don’t know what else to do, so we give unsolicited advice to calm our anxiety, to feel like we’re doing something.
why we give unsolicited advice

Codependency and unsolicited advice

Codependency is an unhealthy focus on other people and other people’s problems. And while not everyone who frequently gives unsolicited advice is codependent, many codependents give unwanted advice as a way to help or fix other people, to feel needed or useful, or to manipulate others into doing what they want.

You can also think of unsolicited advice as a boundary violation. When you give advice that isn’t wanted, you’re intruding on someone else’s right to self-determination, to have different opinions, to come up with their own solutions.

Boundaries go both ways – so we need to not only set boundaries so others don’t hurt us, but we also need to respect other people’s boundaries — and asking before we give advice is one way to do this.

How to stop giving unwanted advice

Someone telling you about a problem isn’t an invitation for you to give advice. Often, people want to be heard and understood, they want to process and feel supported, they don’t want to be told what to do or what you think.

The simplest approach to advice-giving is to ask permission before offering advice or suggestions. Here are a few examples:

  • I have some ideas about what might be helpful. Would you be interested in hearing them?
  • Are you open to suggestions?
  • Would it be most helpful for me to give you some advice or for me to listen?
  • I’ve been through something similar. Can I tell you about what worked for me?
  • Is there anything I can do to help?

Like many things, this is easier said than done. If it’s a struggle to ask permission, try to remember that unsolicited advice is not always helpful or the best way to encourage your loved one to change or try something new. It can even come off as rude or dismissive.

If your goal is to be supportive and helpful, perhaps there’s a better way to accomplish this – and often the best way to know what’s supportive and helpful is to ask.

If you’re struggling with giving unsolicited advice, ask yourself these questions:

  • Why do I want to offer advice right now?

  • Is there something else that I can do that would be more helpful?

  • Is there someone more qualified who could advise this person?

  • Can I let them decide or figure this out on their own?

  • What else can I do to reduce my anxiety or discomfort?

  • Can I accept that my ideas aren’t’ the only good ideas?

  • How can I be supportive without giving unsolicited advice?

  • Can I focus on listening and understanding instead of fixing and instructing? Would this be supportive and respectful?
stop giving unsolicited advice

How to respond to unsolicited advice

If you’re on the receiving end of unsolicited advice, your approach will probably depend on who is giving you the advice, about what, and how often. Generally, the best approach is to be direct and polite about what you need or want. Below are a few ways you can nicely tell someone to stop giving advice.

  • I know you mean well, but I’m not looking for advice. What I’d really like is _______________.
  • Right now, I just want to vent. I’m not looking for solutions.

  • The most helpful thing you can do is to sit with me and listen.

  • I appreciate your ideas, but I want to figure this out on my own.

  • I feel inadequate and annoyed when you repeatedly tell me what to do. I know you care about me and I’ll let you know when I need help.

  • That doesn’t feel like the right approach for me.

  • I know you’re trying to help, but I don’t need any more advice.

  • That’s not something I want to discuss.

You may also want to take preventative measures, especially with routine offenders, and start conversations by letting them know if you’re looking for empathy or guidance/feedback. This can set expectations and help others know how best to support you.

How to respond to unsolicited advice

Whether you’ve been on the giving or receiving end of unsolicited advice, I’d love to hear what’s worked for you. Feel free to leave your ideas in the comments.

©2020 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Originally published by PsychCentral.com.
Photo courtesy of Canva.com

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Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

19 thoughts on “Unsolicited Advice: What It Is and How to Avoid It”

  1. “Codependency is an unhealthy focus on other people and other people’s problems”. Where did you get that? Where’s the “co-” in that definition? It’s called codependency because it is a “partnership”. I.e., one person in a relationship is an “enabler” and the other is a “taker”. They are dependent upon each other (in an unhealthy way) for their needs. That’s why it’s called CO-dependency–it has little to do with one person focusing on another, unless you mean that they go out of their way (to the exclusion of anyone else) to enable–or take from, depending on the perspective–the other half of their “partnership”.

    I’ve never read or heard anyone else describe codependency the way you just did.

    1. Hi Chris,
      Yes, codependency actually refers to both people in a relationship having an unhealthy dependency on each other. However, most current writing about codependency refers to the caretaker/rescuer/enabler/person focused on the other as the codependent. This shift probably began with Melody Beattie’s book Codependent No More. As you point out, it’s not technically an accurate use of the term, but it is common.
      I have many articles specifically about codependency that provide more details. If you’re interested, here’s one that might add some clarity: https://www.livewellwithsharonmartin.com/am-i-in-a-codependent-relationship/
      Thanks for your comment.

      1. This was an incredible article and bookmarked it to read it multiple times to grasp the concepts. I have offered unsolicited advice to my teenage daughter because I think I know better. It’s empowering to admit that and want to do better. It helps to know why I do it so I can be aware of those urges next time around. I really enjoy your writing style and how you break up delicate subjects so thoughtfully. Thank you!

  2. This is a huge problem for me ! Giving as well as receiving advice , I actually ended two close relationships because of this .I tried to navigate with the tactics you suggested but there were so many other factors such as both of us coming from an abusive ,controlling relationship. I miss my dear friend an sister but even when we talked about the problem of given and getting unsolicited advice it never worked. The final thing was I was asked specifically for advice but when I gave it she felt judged and like I was undermining her feelings .(That’s why I’m NOT a therapist ) For now I am practicing Healthy Detachment and a lot of prayer for this situation and recognizing sometimes people come into your life for a “time” only . This was a great article Thank you

  3. Hi Sharon, I really appreciated your clear, short, and encompassed explanation about giving unsolicited advise, it really touched me. I have experienced this both on the receiving end and of course giving advice as it is really is a tricky dance.
    I have a partner that with best intentions has been turning my face red many times and it has been going on for about 5 years. We have talked about it and he is getting better. He is an educator and accountant professional who is required to give advise, but steps out of his “field”. What a great article to share and discuss! Thank you.
    and it has diminished our relationship.

  4. Sharon,
    I love and appreciate your blogs. Also looking forward to reading your boundaries workbook. Thanks so much for sharing your terrific insights!

  5. I found myself “rescuing” somebody recently and realised that I had to step back. It’s good to be aware. Old habits die hard but not impossible to change.

  6. Sharon, your articles have been so very helpful to me as I navigated codependency and behaviors I didn’t even realize were related to anxiety. Thank you so much for your work, has been life changing for me. Looking forward to reading your new book on boundaries.

  7. Giving unsolicited advice is a boundary violation when I’m on the receiving or giving side of it. So validating.
    As an introvert, I receive a great deal of this as people assume that because I may not verbally express myself that they must fill in the blanks.
    I also offer advise without asking or realizing that I’m out of line.

    I like the “permission” questions you suggest.
    And I find it helpful to ask discovery types of questions that mat lead to curiosity and self awareness. I find it very soothing and flattering when someone takes the time to actively listen in this way.

  8. Thandolwamahlase

    Wow… I’ve never appreciated unsolicited advice, I just didn’t know that it’s called unsolicited advice. But I would often tell people who just give me their unsolicited advice, especially when I didn’t even vent about an issue to them, that I pay consultation fees to the experts whose opinions I seek out. As for free advice, they should keep it to themselves.
    This article has helped me with more polite responses, thank you very much!

    1. People who give unsolicited advice (paying no thought to asking permission to do so) are seeking feelings of power and superiority (if they really wanted to ‘just help’, they would ask first).

      I have a family member repeatedly asking giving me unsolicited advice – lately on topics I did not even bring up in conversation- they did. I know it’s about setting boundaries, but it’s hard to do that when there is a history of them throwing coat hangers at the wall just from me saying I don’t want specific advice as I know more about my illness than they do. It’s especially hard as I go unconscious sometimes and do need practical help to save my life at times. It particularly difficult as I try to bite my tongue when I see things that need comment in her life – she allows her 7 year old masturbate in front of non-family members without caring comment or guidance, for example, which I regard as abuse (his classmates will bully him about it mercilessly when he is older). And yet she feels it is ok to reach into my hair and change it – brushing off my protestations that maybe I wanted it that way with ‘like that? Of course you didn’t.’ I am dependent on her because of my illness but my confidence is a mess. I don’t know what to do. And no I don’t have anybody else because I am too lacking in self esteem to properly forge new friendships.

  9. I wish I had read this 50 years ago. I used to call my family “name of Family, Advice, Inc.” Now everyone is dead so I disbanded the company and am very careful about not giving advice. I have several friends that I stopped sharing my difficulties with because I don’t want the never ending advice.

    I will try your boundary sentences and see how things go. I don’t hold out much hope because we are all in our 70s and the behavior is fully ingrained. But I’ll try. Thanks so much.

  10. This article opened a lane of perspective in my soul. I am person people feel comfortable venting too. I always felt its an open invitation to dialogue when a person vents. When I vent I want solutions. So how do I isolate my self until i learn a better communication style. After reading this article less communication is best for me. Im all advice and judgment. SMH

    AV out

  11. I think many people give advice based on feeling not facts or experience.
    If I recieve advice based on feeling-Thanks, I will it give deeper thought. or I was thinking the same way before but after speaking to an expert, they advised against it because.
    If I recieve advice based on facts or experience-what else have you tried before? what else has worked well ?
    Wait a minute am giving unsolicated advice?

  12. I’ve read all your comments, and they all make sense, and can relate to the mistakes that I’ve made, but now, what do I do to rectify them….

  13. I am trying hard to not be so brash in my replies to people who think they can impose their opinion, when in discussion, I tell them about current events in my life. thank you for this article, it helps me better understand why people feel they need to impose their opinion and how I should respond. I particularly loved number five in your bullet list. “I feel annoyed when you tell me what to do, I know you mean well but when I need help Ill ask.” This is a much better response than mine in which I pretty much get right to the point and tell them, “who the….asked for your opinion?” Of course, I dont really much care if your around me or not when it gets to this point but perhaps using your approach could salvage a relationship with some who actually do mean well vs those who just feel superior. Thank you for helping me become a better person.

  14. OMG I love what you’ve written! This is so validating of an offense against me on the daily, I’m always trying to figure out how to address it in a non defensive/hurtful manner.
    I remember being bothered by this boundary violation beginning at 5 years old. I would say “I know” when people would tell me extremely obvious things and they would get mad that I was sort of asserting myself. Then I fell into “learned helplessness” because me asserting myself caused others to be upset so I would act like what they were telling me was amazing information and I’d act like everyone else was smarter than me… When in reality I had (maybe still do 😆) very high levels of intelligence.
    I’m 37 and still working on improving learned helplessness.

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