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How to Give Advice in Five Steps

Receiving unsolicited advice feels like criticism or micromanaging.

Key points

  • Unsolicited advice from others is often perceived as criticism or micromanaging and is dismissed or resented.
  • The starting point is owning your own problem and expressing your concerns.
  • Only move forward when you have buy-in on the problem, and offer the person a range of solutions.
Source: bertholdbordersen/pixabay

Giving advice to those close to you is tricky. While your intentions are good—to find a better solution, to get that reality check and see the writing on the wall, to save them from the heartache or pain that you see ahead that they cannot—it can often backfire. This comes up with your partners concerning what to wear or how to handle their supervisor, your kids on how to tackle homework or clean their rooms, or your roommate on how to clean the kitchen. Instead of appreciating your guidance and wisdom, they get angry and push it away, wave it off, tell you to leave them alone, or are seemingly agreeable but never follow through. Problems easily get triggered on both sides. Here are five steps to give advice the right way:

1: Slow down and realize you are having the problem

Your friend, Sara, is again rebounding out of a relationship and is quickly coupled to her new relationship. You know this pattern; it will be fine for a few months and then collapse. You try to “talk sense” to Sara to help her see this is old news, but she says, “No, you don’t understand; this is different.” Or your elderly parents are not taking their medications regularly but when they “feel like it.” This is driving you crazy—no wonder they never feel better.

Your concerns are understandable. You care. You see a problem. But right now, the only one having a problem is you.

2: Explain the problem

A couple of things motivate people: Problems and values, and most often, it is about problems. Your next step is transferring your concerns to them. Here, you say to Sara calmly that you are not trying to kill her joy, but you’ve noticed as the outsider that she quickly falls into these rebound patterns. Or you tell your parents that you understand that they feel they need to take the medications when they feel okay, but that is not how these medications work.

3: Get agreement

Sara says you’re absolutely right; she’s falling into the same old pattern—thanks. Your parents are unsure, but you go to the drug website and show them the information on dosing, and they understand. Or they don’t: Sara gets angry, and your parents get confused.

4: Fix the problem in the room

New problem in the room. The issue now is emotion. Ask Sara how she thinks about this differently, and ask your parents what they don’t understand. Be calm. Often the problem isn’t about what you’re saying but how you sound—critical or micromanaging. If you suspect that is the case, say it: “I’m not trying to be critical or micromanaging. I’m worried.” Say this in a calm voice. If you still get resistance, time to no longer push; you’re getting nowhere. Circle back later and try once again to express your concerns.

5: Move forward with your suggestions

If you have buy-in, you can move forward. Here you make a suggestion rather than a directive. You say to Sara: “I’m wondering if it would be better for you to slow down the pace of this relationship or even try dating other people, so you don’t fall into the same pattern.” You say to your parents: “It seems like it’s important that you take your medications every day. I wonder if it would help to set up a pill box or a reminder on your phone?”

The key here is using soft emotions like wonder or concern—rather than “You Should”—and giving folks choices. Again, check for agreement. If there’s any hesitation, a shaking head, check in—“I notice you are shaking your head. What are you thinking?” Go back and fix the problem in the room.

Most people don’t like being told what to do when they don’t ask for it because it’s too easy for them to feel micromanaged or criticized. The starting point is you—realizing that you are the one who is caring and anxious and trying to fix a problem that the other person may or may not see. The best you can do is sensitively verbalize your concerns and suggestions, and then you’re done. You’ve reached the limits of your power.

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