Offering Unsolicited Advice

How should you offer unsolicited advice? You shouldn’t.

This morning I rode a bike trail that includes an underpass and a particularly steep ramp. It’s one of my favorite routes, but for me that ramp is a killer. No matter how hard I try I can never get quite enough momentum to crank to the crest. I always stall just before reaching the top, so I have to just hold myself steady, make sure I don’t roll backward, and inch my way the final three or four feet.

So this morning I was maintaining my stalled position and creeping forward when a guy rolled past. He called over his shoulder, “You should shift to a lower gear before climbing a hill.”

Wow. If only I’d known…

I confess—my thoughts at that moment weren’t something like, “Hosanna, the Lord hath provided. Praise God for sending such a wise and generous man.”

I wondered if he really thought I didn’t know about shifting gears. If he’d taken a moment to understand the situation he’d have seen that I was indeed in the lowest possible gear. I would have assured him that I had tried a number of strategies, but my lack of dexterity and strength hasn’t allowed me to conquer this particular challenge yet.

But he didn’t bother to even slow down. He simply tossed out what felt like a dismissive, condescending nugget of drive-by advice. I wonder what he intended, what he was thinking—or if he was thinking.

Did he imagine that his pearl of information would help me reach the top of the ramp? Not likely, since you can’t change gears while stopped on a steep incline.

Was he concerned for my immediate safety? If so, perhaps he might have slowed down to ask if I needed help.

Some advice is a shortcut that demonstrates a lack of genuine concern. Providing helpful feedback requires time and patience and the commitment to engage in authentic relationship. It’s much quicker to provide a quick “If I were you”—even though you’re not—and then move on.

Sometimes advice generates a false sense of superiority. Since I’m clearly not as smart as you, I’ll never be able to figure this out on my own. The only way for me to avoid a mistake is for you to tell me what I should do.

Advice is often a simple quest for short-term results. I don’t really care whether you learn principles that might enhance your ultimate independence or problem-solving capability. I just want the answer or the sale or the immediate gratification. We’ll worry about that other stuff later.

When I speak to groups of kids about disability issues, they’re often concerned about how to help without offending. “What should I do if I see someone who appears to need help?”

My answer is to ask if there’s something you can do to help. This doesn’t guarantee that the person won’t be offended, because some folks look for excuses to be offended. Whenever someone asks me that question, I smile and thank them for asking. Usually I’m fine, but occasionally I do need a little help and I always appreciate the concern.

So if you see an old bald guy stalled near the top of a ramp, don’t tell him what he should have done. He’s probably self-conscious enough already.

But don’t just ignore him, either. This might be the day his shoulders are a little fatigued, and maybe he’s about to lose his grip and crash. He might appreciate a little push, or he might thank you and tell you he’ll be okay.

Either way, you’ll know you offered with a heart of service and love.

Are you ever tempted to offer unwanted advice to kids, spouse, or friends? What’s a better response?

It’s not my place to solve your problems. My job is to love you while you solve your problems. Cec Murphy