On Navigating the Minefield of Advice and Boundaries


I often receive requests for advice via email. It’s surprising and honouring that people choose to ask me rather than/as well as the many other personal growth writers out there. But it’s also sometimes based on a big misconception that, as a coach, giving advice is what I do (it’s really not).

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In fact, I have an ambivalent relationship with advice. On the one hand, advice columns like Dear Prudence and Carolyn Hax are some of my guilty pleasures. I love reading people’s stories and I recognise the value in being able to ask about a specific issue and get a specific answer. A lot of the blog posts here (including this one) would be classed as advice. In certain situations, advice can help us get clarity, see a situation from a new perspective, and drag us out of a muddled fog with a clear path forward.On the other hand, advice can be a minefield. The boundaries between the giver and the taker can often become muddied. Advice-givers can have their own, not always clear, agendas. In some situations, advice can leave us feeling more helpless than empowered. It’s often offered unsolicited (a personal pet peeve of mine) and it can make an unsatisfying substitute for simple compassion and understanding. Being able to show someone “I see you, I hear you, you are understandable and relatable,” is often a far bigger gift than telling them what you think they should do next.When it comes to advice, caveat emptor.With that in mind, in this (unashamedly advice-filled) post, I’m sharing a few thoughts I find helpful to remember when taking or asking for advice from others:

You have to live with the consequences, not the giver.

Whatever situation we’re in, when we take advice from someone, whatever happens next is our responsibility. If things don’t work out the way we had hoped that’s our responsibility. If we regret taking the advice that’s our responsibility. We don’t have a get out of jail free card that allows us to hold other person responsible for the consequences. We don’t get to come back to them later and say “Things didn’t work out and it’s your fault.”Throughout six-ish years of being self-employed, I’ve taken advice from other people that has turned out to be not so great (for most of the following reasons). While it’s useful to acknowledge that with the gift of hindsight, I was still the one that acted on it. If I blame the advice-givers for the consequences, I’m far more likely to make the same mistakes over and over instead of learning from it and being more cautious next time.Whenever we take advice, it’s a good idea to check the person’s credibility. Do they walk the walk as well as talking the talk? How’s that working out for them? Are they someone we like and trust? Are they coming at this with their own agenda (and if so, is that an agenda we can get behind?) Do they know enough about our situation to share a credible perspective?

What has worked for someone else in the past isn’t necessarily going to work for you in the present.

A lot of advice in the personal development world falls into the one size fits all category: “I used to be miserable, broke and lonely, and with this one amazing trick I turned it all around (P.S. if it doesn’t work for you, you’re obviously not doing it properly.)” That one amazing trick might well be helpful for that person, but it isn’t a guarantee it will work for everyone.It’s important to be humble and recognise that we can learn a lot from people who are several steps ahead of us on the same path. Those people can inspire, motivate, and encourage us forward. But their way isn’t the be all and end all. It’s still our job to make the right decisions for us in the moment.

No one is the overriding authority on you, life or the universe.

I’m most tempted to take advice when I’m tired of struggling and I want someone to give me an easy solution, like, yesterday. And it’s the easy solution part that can be deceptively enticing. It’s OK to acknowledge we’re in a pickle and, right now, we can’t see the way out of it. We’ve all been there and sometimes there are no obvious right answers or easy resolutions to uncomfortable challenges or situations.But there’s also a big difference between asking for help or support and asking someone else to take charge of our lives for us. As I mentioned above, we’re responsible for what happens next.You know yourself best. You (and only you) can decide whether a particular piece of advice will work for you.

Advice isn’t always empowering.

Sometimes the path of least resistance is to turn to someone else and say “Tell me what to do! Fix this for me!” but when we do that, it’s usually because we’re embroiled in some kind of funky personal dynamic. We’re in victim mode and looking for a saviour. In the long-term, this just keeps us stuck, waiting for other people to come and rescue us. Instead, what I’ve needed most in these times is to pull on my adulting pants and recognise that, with the right guidance and support, I’m capable of figuring this out—no white knight required.People are capable—often more capable than they give themselves credit for. That goes for you and me too. And we honour that capability by opening space for them to find the right answers for them, rather than imposing our own answers on them. This was something I learned during counselling training. It’s a philosophy I endeavour to carry through my coaching practice and in life too (admittedly, much easier said than done…)

Advice is often more about the giver than the receiver.

Sometimes advice can come from a well-meaning place, other times it can be rooted in ego. Advice can be based on what the other person believes is best for us, it can also be based on their own judgements, prejudices, and desire to “be right”. Even in the best case scenario, the advice giver is still bringing their own experiences, beliefs, histories and principles into the mix. Being truly disinterested is hard, if not impossible.I know the times when I’m most desperate to give someone advice are the times when I most need to check that urge and ask: “Is this coming from a place of love and care for them? Or is this about me wanting to be perceived as useful and feel good about myself?”[Tweet "Advice is a gift, not an obligation."]Whatever situation we’re in, advice is a gift, not an obligation. It’s something we are free to take or leave. It’s something we give best with a respect for the other person’s individuality, capability and strength. It's also something we receive and consider with the same respect for ourselves.When do you find advice most useful? And when is it better left unsaid? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.Further reading: How to cultivate self-trust & other people's choices don't define whether we are good enough Image: Kevin Curtis