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Asking for and Giving Advice

Asking for and giving advice is rarely what it seems.  When you ask for advice you are usually trying to meet needs for acceptance, support, healing, and/or empathy.  When you give advice you may be trying to meet needs for self-acceptance, belonging, and purpose. Unfortunately, asking for and giving advice, are rarely effective strategies to meet these needs.

Asking for Advice

Asking for advice, elicits others' thoughts and opinions, which are often given without a clear connection to your needs or the specific context.  To complicate things further, advice can often be perceived as criticism.  You are often left feeling frustrated, just as confused, and perhaps a little more self-critical. 

After hearing the advice you still have the same unmet needs, so, lacking another alternative, you ask for advice again on the same issue and sometimes of the same person.

A couple of things stand out as reasons why you might keep asking for advice even though it doesn't meet your needs.  Intuitively you know others like giving advice so it makes it seem like you are asking less of them.  If you are like a lot of folks, you have some shame about having needs and at the very least you imagine you will burden others with your needs.  In short, even though you may know what to ask to meet your needs, shame and the idea of burden prevent you from being direct and doing what you know works.

You can often work through these blocks by giving your listener a real choice about giving you their time or not.  For example, you might say something like, "I could use some listening around something.  I wonder if this is a good time for you or if later on would be better?"  Most people have difficultly saying "no" when asked to listen.  The key to getting an authentic yes or no is to offer choices that are equally socially acceptable.

At a more basic level you may just not know how to ask in another way.  After all, you likely haven't seen many models of people stating needs and requests directly. Here are some simple ways to ask for support and empathy:

Could you tell me what you are understanding about my situation? (after you share something)

Could you just sit with me and hold me while I feel how scary that was today?

I don't know what my needs are in this situation, would you be willing to hear my story and then help me identify my needs?

I know that if I can talk about this I will get more clear.  Would you be willing to listen?

Giving Advice

If you are in the position of being asked to give advice, you might find that despite your annoyance with what you see as a stuck friend or partner, you continue to willingly and happily offer your opinions and advice.

Giving advice can have an almost addictive quality.  A student in Compassionate Communication recently described his experience of giving advice, "I can feel myself amp up and get grabby.  I puff up and I grab her problem and make it mine.  I get to be important and smart because I am going to be the one to fix it.  Underneath I know I am trying to meet needs for validation and purpose."

If someone asks you for advice, it's helpful to pause before giving it.  In the pause you might notice your own eagerness to be "the one who knows".  Noticing this you can take a deep breath and settle back into your center.

Wisdom doesn't come from advice given from this "grabby" kind of place.  Unconsciously acting from that place (yes, even when elicited by another) you actually sabotage the deeper needs you are trying to meet for self-acceptance, belonging, and purpose.

When someone asks you for advice, you can listen for the request underneath and make some guesses.  For example, "I hear you asking for advice, but I am guessing there might be something else up.  Maybe you just need to hear that it's okay to get upset about that?"

You can also just ignore the request for advice (which is what I often do) and begin to offer empathy.  Empathy reveals deeper needs and also helps the other person get in touch with their own clarity and wisdom.  In the training world, we often say that if at the end of the workshop, participants aren't mentioning the trainers, you know you have done your job well.  That is to say, truly supporting others is about helping them find their own wisdom, not about what you know or can do.

Take a moment now to reflect on recent times when you have asked for and received advice.  If some instances were helpful and others were not, see if you can identify what made it so in each case.  For example, you might ask yourself questions like, "What needs were up for me in each situation?"  "What was the other person saying or not saying that was different?"  "How did I phrase my request?"

If you find yourself frequently giving advice or sharing what you know, take time to check in with where that is coming from.  Is there another way you could be of service or meet your needs for acceptance, belonging, and/or purpose?

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9 Responses

  1. Jan 06, 2012
    Mary Garrard

    Then there's the whole issue of giving or receiving UNsolicited advice. This is the one that really gets me, both when I'm on the giving and on the receiving ends!

  2. Jan 06, 2012

    Dear LaShelle, Thank you for this writing about advice. I have just moved in with my mother and have been dealing with the boundaries of caregiving and yet remaining respectful and giving her space and dignity. My siblings have been dealing with this too, and one has said he must now be the "parent". I find this not helpful to me to her and possibly not to him. I took Marshall Rosenburg's NVC course, and loved it but wish I could practice with someone now. I really appreciate your emails! Sincerely, Patricia

  3. Jan 07, 2012

    This 'gem' is very helpful to me because it is part of my job to 'assist' others, and I see how that can carry over into my personal life. I am aware that it is not helpful in my personal life and has caused me problems(now I know why). I can see how further exploration of needs could be helpful. Thank you again for another 'insight gem' that is so applicable to my own life experience.

  4. Jan 10, 2012

    Thank you all for your comments. It's good to hear from you all. It's so helpful to hear how the gems land for you. Hmm, I wonder if responding to unsolicited advice would be a good connection gem?

  5. Jan 14, 2012

    Hi LaShelle,

    thanks for helping me examine my 'giving advice' and being "Mr fix-it" tendencies and the needs i am meeting when giving advice that i have or have not been asked for.

    I loved your article in many ways, and while reading it i noticed there was a small part of me that was sad, wanting acknowledgement and recognition. I realised then, that this part was confusing advice with information, education and know-how, which i have enjoyed both giving and receiving, and which has been an effective strategy to meet many needs.
    Seeing this distinction, this part or me no longer feels sad!

    If I am offering unasked for advice it is certainly more to meet my needs than the needs of the other. My dialogue in this case would be something like, "You SHOULD stop and listen to me for a minute! What you SHOULD do is......" Notice how I'm shoulding all over this poor person!

    Your article also helps me recognise the joy I get being a Mr "Fix-it" comes from my meeting needs for purpose, my greatest need! I have always loved fixing things.Just gotta remember I can't fix people!

    My favourite bit was this :
    You can also just ignore the request for advice (which is what I often do) and begin to offer empathy. Empathy reveals deeper needs and also helps the other person get in touch with their own clarity and wisdom. In the training world, we often say that if at the end of the workshop, participants aren’t mentioning the trainers, you know you have done your job well. That is to say, truly supporting others is about helping them find their own wisdom, not about what you know or can do.

    I have also found this to be true and it is always a treat for me to be reminded of it.

    Thanks so much!


    Dorset Campbell-Ross

  6. Jan 15, 2012

    Thank you so for sharing your thoughts.Helped me a lot
    to get clear about situations were i tend to be a grabby advisor.
    Really helpful and precious for me!



  7. Jan 16, 2012

    Good to hear from you all, so glad to contribute. I want to add that I do believe advice can be helpful and meet needs, especially if empathy occurs first.

  8. Oct 01, 2014
    William Motley


    I just started graduate school for Counseling in California. I have been studying NVC for about a year. It has completely changed my life and deepened my relationship with myself and others. I would like to take on another practice that will further deepen my compassion. I was looking at inner relationship focusing and later stumbled upon Hakomi. I was wondering how helpful Hakomi was for you. Would you highly recommend it or not compared to NVC. I already have a strong mindfulness/meditation practice that already deepens my NVC practice, strengthens my compassion, and keeps me in the present. Would Hakomi add more to that?


    William Motley

  9. Oct 01, 2014

    Hi William

    Yes, I highly recommend Hakomi. It was life changing for me. It complements NVC by bringing subtle awareness to our relationship to our needs, which is infinitely layered and subtle, as I am sure you know. It provides a way to heal and jump out of harmful patterns that is alive in the present moment. Learning Hakomi not only deepened my relationship to NVC but broadened and deepened my ability to teach NVC in a way people can receive it best.

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