by Bonny Osterhage
We’ve all heard it, and chances are that many of us have even been guilty of offering it: unsolicited advice. It can be veiled such as “Oh we don’t allow any video games in our house,” to blatant, “I can’t believe you let little Suzy watch so much television!” It can come from family members, friends or complete strangers, but regardless of the source, unsolicited advice is usually as unwelcome as a wool sweater in the middle of a San Antonio summer—and it can make people just as hot under the collar!
Just ask local parent Jennifer Taylor, whose grandmother was constantly advising the young mother to put her newborn infant to sleep on his stomach.
“It actually got to the point where I would go in my baby’s room to check on him and find him asleep on his tummy,” says Taylor. “My grandmother was going in and turning him over because that was the way she did it with her own three kids.”
Taylor finally had to lay down the law and explain that, although she welcomed her grandmother’s visits and her advice, this was one rule that she simply would not bend.
“I explained how pediatricians today recommend back sleeping to prevent SIDS,” explains Taylor. “My grandmother was obviously hurt, but she did back off.”
Don’t Take It So Personally
We live in a fast-paced, highly competitive world where we tend to measure our successes and failures based on what those around us are doing. Therefore it becomes easier to simply pretend to have all the answers rather than admit that we don’t have a clue.
Based on that information, it should be easier to let unsolicited advice roll right off your back. But when the stranger in the checkout line tells you your child’s pacifier will result in orthodontia, or your own mother says that perhaps you are too lenient in your discipline tactics, it is difficult not to take it to heart.
“Don’t personalize,” cautions Mary Ann Flatley, M.D., general adult psychiatrist. “Instead try to assume that the remark is said out of good will and the person is really attempting to help you.”
You Catch More Flies with Honey
Assuming good will and helpfulness sounds easy enough, but when you are on the receiving end of a well-intentioned “zinger,” it doesn’t make the words sting any less. However, rather than ruin a friendship, cause strain between family members, or create an awkward situation in public by losing your temper, learn how to politely halt the conversation. Flatley recommends a three-step technique.
“To say ‘no’ effectively, you must first make a positive statement, then say ‘no’, then end with a positive statement,” she describes.
In the case of Taylor and her grandmother, Flatley’s technique would have looked something like, “I understand your concern about my baby sleeping on his stomach, but I am going to have to trust my pediatrician’s advice. Thank you for caring so much.”
“You have to make your statement without defensiveness or anger so that the ‘no’ can be heard,” adds Flatley.
Theresa Moore, LCSW, LPC, suggests having an arsenal of what she calls “parent shrinkers” at your fingertips. These are polite responses that quickly put a stop to the conversation. They include phrases such as:
“Thank you for sharing that advice.”
“Gee, I really hadn’t looked at it that way.”
“Thanks! I’ll think about that.”
Moore states that these responses acknowledge the concern or interest, but don’t open the door for further discussion.
“You just can’t add to that,” she says.
When to Cut Your Losses
Chances are, once someone sees that they are not going to get a response from you, the solicited advice will stop. If it doesn’t, it may be time to consider the source.
“If the advice is coming from your parents, you might ask them to reflect on how they felt when they were given advice from their own parents,” suggests Flatley.
In the case of a friend, however, it might be time to reevaluate the relationship and get to the root of the problem.
“When someone comes across as too authoritative, it is usually due to their own underlying insecurities,” offers Flatley. “Often people share their perspectives out of no reason other than anxiety over their own choices.”
Bonny Osterhage is a freelance writer based in San Antonio and the mother of two boys.