Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: I love my sister-in-law, but she is the queen of unsolicited advice. Any conversation about my work, our house, conflicts with friends, or dealing with our kids, if it includes anything relating to a problem or disappointment – even if I have expressed no hint of being in doubt about what to do, or even whether anything needs to be done – brings an immediate, “You should … .”
The first few times I can brush it off, listen politely and go on to the next subject, etc. But she comes to visit for several days. After the first six or seven instances of this, it gets really annoying. By the way, the advice is usually rather impractical or unhelpful.
I am now asking you for advice on how to deter or deal.
Now Soliciting Advice
As always, give candor a try: “Actually, I’m not really looking for advice, just an ear,” or, “It’s under control, thanks, I’m just making conversation.”
You can also help her satisfy these advisory impulses of hers, which she apparently can’t resist, but this time on your terms: Pick something you’re reliably not emotional about or possessive of, and ask for her help with it. “I’m never happy with the way my mashed potatoes turn out, and yours are so good. What’s your secret?” Or, “I’m between books/TV shows – have you read/watched anything good lately?” Plan ahead so you can do this at several points throughout her visits, and – this is important – focus on her strengths.
Constant “You should … “-type intrusions betray a need to feel important, authoritative, needed – and if that’s the case with your sister-in-law, then she’s going to keep coming at you with suggestions no matter what you say.
In fact, deflecting her could backfire by only intensifying her craving to matter to you. If instead you make a conscious choice to treat her as an authority on various subjects in which she is invested but you are emotionally neutral, then you can signal to her (in a controlled-experiment kind of way) that she matters to you.
In theory, at least, that can make her comfortable enough around you to stay out of the business on which you don’t invite her to weigh in.
If that fails, then stick to brush-offs, but pick a deflection phrase and use it each time, verbatim. “Interesting,” works well, as does, “Huh – I’ll keep that in mind.” The repetition will deliver your message, if you have the patience to let it. Even if she refuses delivery, it works as a polite way to deny her any unwelcome engagement in your personal business.
As a last resort, there’s an approach that can delight fans of meta. At a moment moment when you’re not being subjected to unwelcome coaching, if such an opening exists in nature, say, “This has been bothering me, and I thought you might have a suggestion: What do you do when people offer you unsolicited advice? It’s one of my pet peeves and I still haven’t found a satisfying way to deal with it.” Then wait a bit – till the next visit, if you can restrain yourself – and subtly do what she says.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.