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How to handle advice Origineurs podcast episode hosted by communication expert, Loretta Milan

How to handle advice

People love to give advice.

There’s one thing people love to dish out abundantly and that’s advice. Sometimes we ask for it. Other times, it’s offered to us whether we want it, like it or not.

So great is the desire to offer advice that there are enterprises built around it like Mumsnet, Reddit and Quora, not to mention social media channels and the thriving comment sections on various websites that are buzzing with opinions on how others should live.

Often, advice is well intentioned. People want to help.

Other times though, there are people who have an agenda to force us down a path, push a solution on us, demonstrate their intellect or, worse, to shame us. We’ve all encountered someone who loves to say “I told you so” and state what we should have done when it’s too late to do anything.

Well intentioned or not, there’s one big problem with advice: It’s a minefield. Especially when there’s more than one advice giver.

Who do you listen to? What do you listen to? How do you know what’s wrong or right? Is there a way to know you’re making the best decisions? And, is there a way to avoid upsetting the people whose advice you don’t follow?

The jumble sale of advice.

A few weeks ago, my daughter sat on the sofa here in the Origineurs studio and we were talking about her path to university.

She knows she really wants to be a midwife but getting on the right degree course is proving a little tricker than she’d like it to be. Not because she’s not excelling on her Health and Social Care Diploma course. Not because she isn’t clocking up work experience. And, not because she lacks a passion for caring.

My daughter’s challenge comes in the form of dyslexia. It means getting the grade she needs in GCSE English is proving tough and there’s not a vocational option that any of her desired degree routes will accept.

So, when someone recently gave her the advice that she shouldn’t go to university because it’s a waste of money and time – it hit hard. There she was, facing the struggles with her English – which I know she’ll make it through with determination and support – and that ill-timed advice gave her a wobble. It made her question whether her effort was worth it. Whether her dream was worth it.

I said what I always say. Let’s talk about it. But, before I could do anything, I had to help her understand how and why people give advice.

One way I like to look at advice is as a jumble sale. Picture this. You step inside the store. There are racks and racks of advice hanging from the rails, folded onto tables, piled onto cabinets. It’s all squeezed in.

Some items will be of value to you – at least in part. Others will be of little value or worthless. But, to find the gems, you’ll need to sift through what’s there.

At the jumble sale, you may have the luxury of being able to browse the advice at your leisure. There maybe an assistant who smiles and comes over, offering to help you find what’s right you, patiently guiding you to a few items that sound like they could be just your thing. Or there could be a pushy sales person on commission who wants you to buy as much as possible – whether it’s right or wrong for you – and you’d better be wary.

It’s helpful to be aware of why people give advice. Solicited or not. Useful or not. They may mean well, may intend to be friendly, be excited for you, or want to be involved or feel needed. Or they may want to dominate, perhaps they feel jealous or malicious.

Be open minded as to what you think is going on as you sort through the advice that comes at you in the jumble sale of life.

Navigating the 7 types of advice.

1. One-way advice

People who give one-way advice typically have limited experience in the area they’re giving advice or a very fixed view. They believe there is only one way to do things.

Occasionally this works. When your situation, experience and values align completely with the other person. But this is rare. Humans are varied and complex.

That’s why there are many limitations to one-way advice. Worst of all, the lack of experience and open-mindedness that come with this type of advice can lead to a lot of blind-spots, causing potentially better alternatives being ignored.

So, be wary of this type of advice.

How do you spot it?

It most often sounds like…

“You should do this…’” or “You should never do that” usually followed by a broad statement like “this always works” or “this never works”.

To which I generally answer in my head…for you. Because this is usually limited to that person’s individual experience.

The best way to respond – unless they’re being obtuse – is to ask more questions about the person’s experience to find out how closely it aligns with yours.

And, go in search of a lot more opinions – or do a lot more soul searching – before you come to a conclusion about what’s right for you. Because what’s right for one, is not automatically right for another, even twins.

2. Inherited advice

This type of advice is common in organisations that have been running for some time and even in families. It’s the type of advice that can often be passed from experienced people to younger ones.

Inherited advice can sometimes sound like “this is how we do things around here” or “this how it’s always been done” with either no explanation as to why or vague reasons.

Sometimes it’s perfectly reasonable and routine. Like the way the photocopying is done and the way the team handles the tea round and the way team meetings take place. If it makes rough sense, fine.

But, if something doesn’t make sense, especially if it’s important, never live with it. The antidote is to ask questions. Start with “why”.

  • Why do we do things this way?
  • When did we start doing this?
  • Tell me the story about where this all began?
  • Who made these decisions?
  • Have you ever had any ideas about how this could be done better?

This can help you decide how relevant the advice is today. Sometimes things still work – either in full or in part. Other times, by going through this exercise, you can get a picture of how and why things need to change. And, you could come up with a stronger solution.

There may be some resistance to adopting it but, if you’ve taken the time to understand the background and reasons, you’ll be on your way from the ‘inherited’ to the ‘future’.

3. Sly advice

Sly advice has a malicious agenda. It’s designed to highlight a fault in you. Maybe it’s something you don’t know but should. Perhaps it’s a weakness, a flaw, a failing, or an oversight. It can be designed to subtly humiliate or shame you without the advice-giver looking like the bad guy.

They say they were “only trying to help”.

This type of advice is often ‘message sending’ and can be coupled with holding a ‘one-way’ view on something. It’s commonly done online but can often be done in person too, especially in the safety of groups.

For example, someone may say loudly, “of course, breastfeeding is so much better for babies” in earshot of a bottle-feeding mum who’s on her own and outnumbered.

More recently sly advice has been used to pressure King Charles and the Princess of Wales to release more information about their health challenges. There have been people who have advised that it would be in the public interest to know the details. In reality, everyone has a right to privacy around their intimate health information and these advice givers simply want to mask their curiosity behind claims of public interest.

4. Loaded advice

Like sly advice, loaded advice also has an agenda, but this time, someone wants something from you. These advice givers may also use shame but not always – they may use flattery – because the primary aim is to get you to do something, for example buy their product or attend their event.

Advice that is linked to you taking an action is not always loaded advice. It can be perfectly legitimate so pay attention to figure out the true intentions.

The question to ask yourself is this: Is it the right advice for you?

  • Does it make logical sense for you or are they making too much or a leap in their favour over yours?
  • Who is set to ultimately gain from the advice? You or them? If you are a potential customer, you should always gain value from something you buy or invest in.

If you feel pressured to take advice, take out the heat. Buy yourself time to weigh up the options and consider the steps. If you need legal advice, make sure you get the chance.

Anyone who truly cares about whether the advice is truly right for you will be happy to let you take the time you need and will work with you to answer any questions you have.

5. Sugar-coated advice

It feels wonderful when people love us and respect us. Some may even have people who look up to and admire them.

The downside is, it can lead to ‘sugar-coated advice’. Because these people want to please us, because they like us and want us to like them, they may say what we want to hear.

Unfortunately, this is advice we also have to be vary wary of. Just as sugar tastes nice – but is not necessarily good for our teeth – sugar-coated advice is not necessarily what we need to hear. It’s what we want to hear.

It can leave us with blind spots. Be aware of your position. The higher up you are in an organisation, the more popular or liked you are, or the more feared you are, the greater the risk sugar-coating can happen.

Sugar-coating may feel good, but if you get the sense people are simply saying what you want to hear, it is better to invite them to be truthful. Tell them that you really respect their opinion and you appreciate what they have to say whether it’s hard to hear or not. You can reassure them that it won’t affect you relationship regardless of what they have to say if you need to.

Then listen and stay true to your word. Believe me, they’ll be paying attention warily and if you don’t, they won’t open up again.

6. Wise advice

Do you have a wise soul in your life? Maybe it’s a family member, a friend, someone at work, in business or in the community?

A wise advisor is someone with life experience and perspective. They can see the bigger picture. They can be a calming influence because, when things get tense, they can be a reminder of what matters.

They can be a great person to turn to for advice when you have a pivotal life or business decision on your hands and you need a sturdy sounding board, someone you can trust to be objective and remind you of what is important to you.

An alternative can be a coach. Or you could see if you could unlock this capacity in yourself through journaling and turning to wise books for regular wisdom to guide you through the journey of life.

7. Honest advice

This is the type of advice I personally appreciate the most. I discovered this when I was working with a FTSE 100 company and the team I was engaged with were particularly challenging and truthful with feedback on a regular basis.

I found this directness tough at first because truth can be hard to swallow at times.

But I soon learned it was a gift. I always knew where I stood and, whether I agreed with the advice or not, I knew what people thought and I knew it was given with honest intentions. It meant I was fully informed and could make objective decisions.

Honest, respectful advisors are valuable. Keep them close and look after them.

It's your life, not theirs.

Okay, so now we’ve worked through the seven types of advice, let’s return to my daughter, and the advice she was given. After we went through all seven types, we realised something very common.

She’d received not one type of advice, but a blend. And, like most advice, it was driven by the life experiences and the intentions of the person giving it. Again, this is very common.

Ultimately, what mattered though was, with this fresh insight, how my daughter felt about it all and what she wanted to do.

I reminded her that there are more options for young people these days than there have ever been and if she was questioning her path we could always re-plot it.

But she shook her head. “No mum,” she said. “Being a midwife is really important to me. It is what I really want to do and I want to go to university even if it means doing English”.

She saw how the well-meaning but limiting one-way advice she’d received had worked for the person who’d given it but wouldn’t work for her. She didn’t want to live their life but wanted to live the life of her dreams.

Top tips for handling advice.

If I can give you any advice about advice, it’s this…

  • Listen openly: There can be gems in any jumble sale and you don’t want to miss out on them by shutting people down. As long as someone is not being malicious, ask questions to establish their intentions and learnings.
  • Address the advice giver: Thanking your advice giver – even when there is little value – encourages them to speak up again. Their advice might not be helpful this time, but next time could be a gem. So, keep the door open. If someone is being deliberately insulting, this is different. Then, it’s a case of managing your boundaries. You could simply say something like, “I would prefer it if you kept your comments to yourself, thank you”.
  • Filter the advice: Rarely is advice all good or all bad. Sift through it. Pick up the great stuff. Leave the rest behind. It’s your life. Do what feels right.

Key takeaways.

  1. Advice is all around. Sometimes it is solicited, sometimes it is not. Sometimes it is well-meaning, sometimes it is not. Be open minded as to the intentions as you sort through the advice that comes at you in the jumble sale of life.
  2. There are seven types of advice. One-way, inherited, sly, loaded, sugar-coated, wise, and honest. Some takes a single form. Some advice is blended. The trick is to ask questions to learn as much as you can from the advice giver and understand how relevant it is to you.
  3. When you receive advice, as long as it is well-intended, listen openly, thank them so that they will always speak up. Then, filter the advice. Decide what you will pick up and what you leave behind. It’s your life and you know best.

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