Hax: Hold back on unsolicited advice

The Washington PostOctober 29, 2013 

Hi, Carolyn: I usually hold my tongue when it comes to dishing out unsolicited advice, but I’m curious about whether that policy holds when it comes to someone I love.

My sister is a wonderful person in many ways, but she has trouble dating men for longer than a few weeks. I have a few theories: She thinks she comes off as loose and carefree, when actually she exudes how high-strung and sensitive she really is; and her default conversational topic is complaining about other people.

Would a caring sister say, “I know you haven’t asked my opinion, but maybe if you tried to find other conversation topics” or “If you let the little things the guy said or did wrong go, you’d find more of what you’re looking for”? Or do I just say nothing, remain supportive, and offer my opinion if she does ask for it?

UNSOLICITED

The hold-your-tongue policy holds double for people you love, since they’re presumably the ones you’ll most regret alienating.

I’m also not sure what you’d accomplish with your theories except to put your sister on the defensive. Silence isn’t the only alternative, but what you propose is close to suggesting she change her temperament and personality, when what you want is to actually help her, i.e., minimize pain and maximize pragmatism.

One way to avoid the unsolicited trap and remain realistic is to wait till she complains, then ask her what she thinks went wrong. Ask what she plans to do, how she thinks her actions will be received, etc.

Ideally, though, some prompts will get her thinking, plus the ideas will be hers and so automatically less painful. Best of all, you can wade in gently with questions, and back away if it doesn’t work. With blurting out an opinion, there’s no taking it back.

While it can be useful to hear about aspects of ourselves that we can stand to improve, I think it’s even more useful to hear about the good stuff that we’d do well to focus on and highlight around others. Right now it sounds as if you can’t see why a guy would want to date your sister, when it might help her most if you could help her see why one would.

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