By definition, “unsolicited advice” is advice that nobody asked for, and by extension, it’s advice that people rarely want.
It can come from anyone ranging from family members or friends to complete strangers, but almost always begins with “you should…” and ends with us grinding our teeth into paste.
Where does this kind of advice come from? And how can one respond to it effectively?
Why do people give unsolicited advice?
On a fundamental level, people generally want to help others. The problem is that they want to help people behave the way that they do, rather than taking into consideration the fact that the other person isn’t them. They may have different ideas about what to choose and how to respond and behave.
This is especially the case when dealing with a know-it-all: someone who feels that they’re so knowledgeable about a subject that their advice isn’t just beneficial, it’s vital, and should be appreciated as such!
What’s the problem with unsolicited advice?
In addition to not acknowledging that the person they’re advising may not want to behave the same way that they do, the one offering unsolicited advice rarely knows all the details about what they’re commenting on.
For example, suppose a friend tells them that instead of responding to their spouse’s request in the way they did, they should say X instead. That phrase may, however, be triggering for said spouse due to past trauma. Or there could be language or cultural differences that dictate what is and is not an appropriate response.
The one being given advice usually feels obligated to explain why that approach won’t work for them. Then they have to do damage control because the one offering advice feels offended or resentful, and so on and so forth.
It ends up being an enormous amount of mental and emotional labor for a “gift” that was neither appreciated nor asked for in the first place.
Ultimately, unsolicited advice is both presumptuous and disrespectful. It implies that one doesn’t trust the other person to make competent decisions for themselves and that they need “help” simply existing as a human being.
9 Ways To Handle Unsolicited Advice
As you may have guessed, dealing with unsolicited advice can be a tricky endeavor. There’s no single “one-size-fits-all” response that can be used for everyone, because those offering it will have different personalities as well as different relationships to you.
For example, the response you give a coworker to put them in their place might be deeply hurtful to your mother or spouse. Similarly, a jovial, familiar retort that you’d use with your best friend might land you in hot water with your employer.
Below are some of the approaches you can take to respond to this kind of unwanted, unasked-for advice. Tailor the wording to suit your own personality of course, and determine which would be the best for each individual scenario.
1. Change the subject.
This works well with older family members or friends who are easily distracted. If and when you find yourself in a position where they’re offering you advice on what you should say or do—advice that’s often completely inappropriate or even embarrassing—simply change the subject to redirect their focus.
In situations like this, change the subject to something that’s completely different. In fact, the more outlandish or emotion-charging it is, the better.
For example, if they’re telling you what you should do in terms of your relationship, ask if they’ve heard the latest appalling celebrity gossip (if that’s their thing), or mention how the cost of lettuce has increased by 80%.
They’ll practically get whiplash from the redirection, but at least they’ll be squawking about something other than your personal life and their thoughts about how you should run it.
2. Tell them that, although you appreciate their help, you want to sort this out yourself.
This works particularly well for parents and older relatives who want to try and spare you difficulty by telling you what you should do.
In many cases, they might feel anxious about what you’re going through and want to help speed things along for the sake of their own wellbeing as much as yours, but that doesn’t do you any favors.
It’s rather like those parents who never let their kids do anything on their own. Suddenly they’re faced with a teenager who can’t tie their own shoes because they were never allowed to try, fail, and learn from their own mistakes.
If you care about this person, and you don’t want to hurt their feelings, then explain to them that you appreciate where they’re coming from, and that it means a lot to you that they’re offering this advice.
You can even tell them that you’ll consider what they’re saying as you make your decisions, but that ultimately you need to be able to experience things yourself in order to grow as a person. In fact, you can even remind them that sometimes the best way to learn is by making mistakes.
They may not like the idea of you going through difficulty, especially if they’ve experienced similar issues firsthand, but if they truly care about you, then they’ll respect your desire to forge your own path through this.
3. Let them know that you’ve taken care of things in the way that’s best for you.
Quite often, people give unsolicited advice because they want others to say or do what they think is right or more effective, rather than considering that what was said or done was right for those directly involved.
In fact, this is one of the key signs of a judgmental person—telling others how they would do things differently (i.e., “better”), and insisting that they do the same.
In a case like this, you can let them know quite clearly that you’ve taken care of it in the way that was right for you. If you’re feeling benevolent, feel free to thank them for their input and let them know that you’d consider using their approach if and when you find yourself in a similar circumstance to them.
Alternatively, if they start getting condescending and implying that you’re either too young, too inexperienced, or not bright enough to do it yourself—and as such should listen to advice from someone more experienced—you can shut that down real quick.
4. “I know more than you.”
The title of this section is coined from an episode of Parks and Recreation, in which the glorious Ron Swanson tells an overly helpful, but obviously incompetent, person offering help at a hardware store that his help is neither needed, nor wanted.
Once in a while, you may find yourself in a situation where you’re dealing with the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is a type of cognitive bias in which a person has an overblown sense of their own expertise and capabilities in a particular subject.
Due to their misguided self-appreciation, they usually feel a pressing need to tell others what they should do. This often happens when a person doesn’t ask another what their experience level with a topic is, and therefore suggests things that they think they should do.
A visit to any Reddit forum will show you countless examples of this, from carpenters being given suggestions on which screws or nails to buy, to scientists being told that they should read specific papers (that inevitably are authored by the commenter). They’re excruciating to read, really.
In a case where someone is offering unsolicited advice on a subject or technique that you’re skilled at, simply saying, “I know more than you,” and walking away is remarkably effective. You don’t need to try to impress them with your qualifications, nor explain to them why you don’t want to hear about it. Just say your piece and end it.
5. Make it clear to them how their unsolicited advice makes you feel.
When and if someone tells you what you should (or shouldn’t) be saying or doing, let them know exactly how their interference makes you feel. If it makes you feel condescended to, incompetent, inadequate, or similar, then make that abundantly clear to them.
They’ll undoubtedly get defensive and argumentative about it and insist that they only had the best of intentions, but that’s where you stand your ground.
“When you tell me what I should write in my thank-you card to Grandma, you make me feel like you don’t trust me enough to be able to express myself with grace.”
“By informing me of what I should or shouldn’t eat, I feel that not only are you judging my dietary choices, but that you don’t respect the fact that I know what my body needs and how to take care of it in a way that suits me best.”
In a case like this, remind them that they might be incredibly enthusiastic about the amazing health results they’ve experienced from the particular diet that they’re on, but you have a completely different body than theirs, and what works for them won’t work for you.
Similarly, if they’re dictating to you what you should or shouldn’t say to people in your life, make it clear that you are expressing yourself in keeping with the relationship you have with those folks. Explain that your relationship is entirely different from their own.
Keep re-establishing your sovereignty until the message finally gets through. You will encounter resistance to this, especially if you’re dealing with older people who feel that the way they do (or say) things is the “right” way, but stand your ground. It’s your life, and you will make choices for yourself as you see fit.
6. Ask them why they feel the need to offer advice.
If you feel that it would be appropriate, ask them why they felt the need to offer that unsolicited advice. The answer will invariably be some type of defensive huff along with the phrase, “I’m just trying to help!” At this point, ask them exactly what it is they think you need help with.
- Do they feel that you’re incapable of handling this situation on your own?
- Is it because they want you to behave as they do rather than how you do?
- Are they trying to keep you from experiencing things “for your own good?”
Parents of adult children often give unsolicited advice because they’re trying to adjust to no longer being as needed as they used to be. They don’t know where they stand in their grown-up kids’ lives anymore, so they jump at the chance to “help.”
Unfortunately, this is often an attempt to control or manipulate the situation into being their ideal version of things, rather than what’s best for their offspring.
Alternatively, they might be trying to help you so you don’t make the same mistakes that they did, once again not acknowledging that you’re a different person from them.
A parent might try to “save their kid from themselves” by telling them what they should do, but that does their child a massive disservice. It prevents them from being able to explore who they are, what they like, and what does (or doesn’t) work for them.
This is why communication can be helpful to everyone involved. Once you both understand exactly where they’re coming from, you can determine a course of action that works for all of you in the future.
They can understand that their advice isn’t welcome unless it’s asked for, and you can try to remember that they’re basing things on what they have experienced. They don’t simply think you’re incompetent.
7. Tell them that your private life is exactly that—private.
This one only works if someone is offering advice on a topic you didn’t mention to them directly. You are keenly aware that they found out about your situation in a roundabout fashion. Maybe they heard gossip from a mutual friend* and took it upon themselves to tell you what to do.
When people do this, they’re seriously overstepping personal boundaries and involving themselves in situations they weren’t invited into. If you don’t want their help, and certainly don’t want them doing this sort of thing again in the future, you’ll need to put a stop to it immediately.
In a case like this, tell them firmly that you’re a private person, and remind them that you did not go to them directly with any of this information. As such, they’re taking some serious liberties and getting involved in a situation that is absolutely none of their concern.
If they get uppity about it, take a break from interacting with them. Overstepping like this is unacceptable and shouldn’t be tolerated just so their feelings don’t get hurt. If and when they apologize for their behavior, consider letting them back into your life a bit more, but maintain your distance until they’ve proven that they’ve changed their ways.
*Keep in mind that if they come to you about this, then they’re likely talking about you behind your back. Be on your guard.
8. Ignore them.
Depending on who’s giving the advice, ignoring them can be a great response. It’s especially effective if they’ve made a habit of doing so with you, regardless of the fact that you’ve never asked them for it.
Quite often, a person will offer advice to others in an attempt to deflect from the dumpster fire that is their own life. You may have come across this behavior before, such as when a perpetually single friend offers advice on how to approach someone you’re into, or when the chronically unemployed give you tips on what to say in job interviews.
Since they have so little control over whatever’s happening in their world, they interfere and try to get involved in yours instead. It’s rather like watching cringy videos on YouTube. You might feel like crap about your own life in the moment, but at least you’re not as wretched as THAT PERSON.
As such, you can simply walk away from them when they start to offer you advice, or let them know that you’re not interested in what they have to say. They’ll likely take offense, especially if this is an older friend or relative who’s fond of their own voice, but stand firm in your response. If and when you ever want their advice, you’ll let them know.
9. “Did I ask you?”
Repeat this question over and over again until they fall on the floor, crying.
Okay, so that’s a bit extreme, but the underlying message is what counts. Should you come across unsolicited advice, and you have neither the time nor the patience to unpack where it came from, a simple, “Did I ask you?” can do a world of good.
Most of the people who offer said advice don’t consider whether the other person did in fact want this advice or not. What’s important is that they felt good about offering it.
Anytime they try to offer an excuse as to why they felt that their advice was absolutely necessary, remind them that you didn’t ask. At all. Ever. You’ll be met with defensiveness and even anger, as they undoubtedly feel that their way of going about things is the best option available.
Furthermore, they’ll inevitably stomp off in a huff about how ungrateful and rude you are, and then they’ll proceed to tell everyone you know in common about how inconsiderately you’ve behaved.
The upside of this is that they’re unlikely to offer this kind of unwanted advice again in the future. If they do, simply remind them of what happened the last time, and once again ask them whether you’d asked them for their input or not. Repeat as needed.
Ultimately, remember that you don’t owe anyone an explanation as to why you’re not taking their advice. This is your life, you run it according to your own rules, and that’s the end of it. Explaining to them why you aren’t doing what they suggest is a courtesy, but not a necessary one—especially to those who don’t deserve it.
Keep in mind that it’s also important to try to develop a thick skin when it comes to unsolicited advice. See where it’s coming from, and acknowledge the fact that the issue is with the other person and their unfounded assumptions—not a shortcoming on your part.
Try to avoid taking their suggestions as criticisms, and see it as them playing make-believe about how they would have responded had they been in your shoes.
Basically, instead of feeling “attacked” because they offered advice, acknowledge that it’s not all about you; it’s them.
As an aside, it’s important to remember that people respond to situations in different ways. For example, some folks are listeners while others are fixers. If you go to the first type of person with a problem, they’re likely to make a cup of tea and offer soothing noises as you vent your frustrations. In contrast, “fixers” will suggest ways in which you can sort out the problem.
Tensions arise when and if a person simply wants to be listened to, but they’ve chosen a fixer to go to with their problems. This is a case of clashing personality traits. You can circumvent this kind of misunderstanding by determining ahead of time how the person you’re talking to will react, and preempt their response.
For example, if you know that your best friend is a fixer, you can let them know at the beginning of the conversation that you’re not looking for advice, but rather just need to get some things off your chest.
As such, they’ll refrain from making suggestions and let you vent your spleen as needed. This way, you can avoid the unsolicited advice, and they won’t feel irritated that you came to them with problems but don’t want to hear their thoughts on how to sort things out.
Since most interpersonal tensions come down to miscommunications and unexpressed expectations, establishing your personal preferences with regard to advice can make your relationships run much more smoothly in the future.