Communication is frequently heralded as one of the most important pieces to a healthy workplace. A notable, and perhaps the most aggravating, form of communication presents as unsolicited advice.
As any recipient of spontaneous feedback, unabashed suggestion, or voluntary recommendation from colleagues can attest, these interactions are typically uncomfortable and unwelcome. While there is no way to prevent co-workers from putting in their two cents, there are some valid reasons not to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Not all feedback is created equal but it is worth considering what is useful to constructively use going forward and what to disregard as their projection or situational misread. Dr. Pat Gill Webber, author and expert in workplace coaching, and Jill Haseltine, professional actions coach and founder of Deliberate Nation, inform us that there will always be people – backed by a variety of motivations – that will offer unsolicited counsel.
However, there is a way to balance this affront, and prevent the avoidable error of eliminating the good advice with the bad – for your own personal and professional betterment.
Good Intentions Should Be Recognized as Such
There are both sincere and self-serving reasons to giving unsolicited advice. People have a tendency to interject genuine comments, Haseltine explained, for reasons such as: thinking they have the right answer, learning new information, and helping a colleague who is struggling for the answer. Webber shared that another well-intentioned reason for giving advice is that the colleague believes their advice is wanted or valued, particularly when it is given as a “heads up” to a sensitive subject, without realizing the tension created or the insensitive nature of the presentation. In all of these cases a preventative measure would be for the giver to ask permission to address the subject with the person, instead of openly stating the information. Then, the ball is in the receiver’s court, to accept or refuse the advice.
Webber continued, suggesting that there are two overarching themes as to why people give more self-serving opinions. “First, some managers, leaders or otherwise ‘higher level’ people may believe they have a right to provide unsolicited feedback because they are ‘the boss, or in charge’,” she said.
While there are many instances where there is a logical reason or need for feedback from higher ups, there should be a premeditated method to presenting that information.
“Just throwing out unsolicited advice can create problems – defensiveness, surprise and lack of ability to respond on the spot – even if one is a leader/partner or otherwise senior person, does not make it ‘right.’ People, especially professionals in the best sense of that word, likely know better than anyone that they failed to hit the mark, and piling on just is depressing, not energizing.”
A second possible reason, Webber explained, is that some people have a “low emotional intelligence.” She continued, saying that these co-workers struggle in reading others’ clues and body language effectively and while they may or may not mean well, “they operate on what they want to do or say rather than considering what they want to achieve, and then using an appropriate strategy to help others listen to them.”
On the other hand, Haseltine reminds us that not all unsolicited advice is unwelcomed. It is important to recognize the person giving information. One example, she explained, is when people are fearful to ask for help, so instead the offering up a comment, in lieu of a question, with the anticipation that someone will chime in with their own perspective –allows the asker to get advice. Another example is based on working relationships, where unsolicited advice from a mentor may be easy to accept compared to a new co-worker who hasn’t established trust or dependability yet.
In hindsight, Haseltine recommends that new employees work on establishing trust, legitimizing their value, offering their support and recognizing the team efforts within their company first, before offering advice or counterpoints to the established methodology. Essentially earning the right to be asked for advice.
Beauty and Relevance is in the Eye and Ear of the Receiver
Both professional coaches elaborated on the intention behind the act, explaining that a wider perspective shows the true nature of people in general – everyone wants to feel they belong, are contributing, and are valued. Keeping this in mind will give the receiver an advantage.
“Accepting someone’s willingness to help is different than accepting their advice. You can genuinely validate someone without accepting or taking responsibility to act on their unsolicited advice,” said Haseltine, noting that any recipient should respond in confidence (not defensively or insulted), believe in their own strengths and contributions and not feel belittled. So, in an effort to exhibit effective communications, the Deliberate Decisions coach offers the following quotes on how to respond professionally, assertively, and compassionately to unsolicited advice:
In response to an individual:
- “It sounds like you have some ideas for this. That’s great. We need all the ideas we can get.”
- “I’m going to try a few options to see what works best.”
- “I can tell you want to help. I’m still working through this myself.”
- “Thank you for always giving your advice, but there are things that I really want to figure out on my own. I like figuring things out and when I need help or advice I’ll be sure to ask.”
Response in a group setting:
- “Good idea. I’m looking for ideas from everyone on the team.”
- “I like the way you are thinking. Let’s add that to the list. What’s another idea we can add?”
Accepting and acknowledging unsolicited advice gracefully and professionally takes practice. Honing the skill to be an active participant – be it to accept advice or validate the giver – is a learned ability. Practicing the scenario with a trusted colleague by using the phrase, “Thank you, but let’s talk later,” in an even voice and with relaxed body language is one strategy, Webber recommends, for developing a go-to reply. Furthermore, the Arizona-based doctor suggests to, “begin with the end in mind,” by being the best you can be in all professional and personally situations.
“Lots of feedback is nonsense, but much of it is very valuable if you listen and let it sink in,” she said. “Also, remember that if someone thinks something – however ill informed in your view – likely others feel that way too. So listening and thanking people can be very useful.”
Overall, understanding the very nature as to why people provide unsolicited advice and how to receive and filter the information, is beneficial for personal and professional development and makes for a more respected and symbiotic work environment.