As the howling in my head intensified, my voice grew quiet as I silently simmered in resentment.
My frustration bubbled over as I spoke to a friend about an upsetting personal situation. I was raw, angry, and trying to work through my emotions—except I couldn’t speak more than a sentence or two without the constant interruptions that pushed me over the edge.
“Why don’t you…(fill in unsolicited advice here).”
It happened one too many times, and I snapped. I couldn’t f*cking take it anymore.
The thing is, receiving unsolicited advice happens all the time, and I always find it challenging. I know they’re trying to help, which is why I stayed silent in the past—I didn’t want to seem like an ungrateful asshole. But the truth is, I wasn’t interested—I just needed to vent and share. If I wanted advice, I would have asked for it.
As was often the case, a good conversation turned sideways—leaving me feeling worse than when I began. I wouldn’t get to share my story, but I would get the unwanted advice— and the conflict I was attempting to share would be compounded with a new one.
As the conversation ended, I wondered why the f*ck people do this. Don’t they know it’s not helpful? Do they have any idea what they’re doing? But that not-so-little voice in my head spoke up and put me in my place.
The truth is, I am one of those people too.
I’ve given unsolicited advice for most of my life. And I’ll blame it on the rescuing and people-pleasing of my codependency. Quick with a solution, I’ve interrupted and hijacked more conversations than I care to remember—and I’ve only recently begun to realize how often I’ve done it.
Like most of us, my intentions are noble—I really do want to help. But as it turns out, it’s not supposed to be about me—most of the time people don’t want help. They want a safe, nonjudgmental place to share the visceral pain they’re feeling, with all the accompanying drama, anger, and assorted raw emotions that spill out.
They don’t need advice—they need us to STFU and listen.
While many of us are naturally good at this type of communication, I’m not one of them. And for those of us who aren’t, it’s a frustrating dynamic that can ruin conversations and damage friendships.
I discovered a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh that clarified this dynamic for me:
“Do your best to practice compassionate listening. Do not listen for the sole purpose of judging, criticizing, or analyzing. Listen only to help the other person express himself and find some relief from suffering.”
As soon as I read it, I knew it would have a profound effect on the way I communicate.
The concept of listening for the sole purpose of helping someone find relief was new to me—but it instantly made so much sense. After all, isn’t that what we all want when we’re suffering?
But we go wrong when we make it about ourselves. We feel better knowing we tried to help, showing that we care. And often we’re trying to ease our own discomfort as much as the other person’s. It’s hard to sit with pain and suffering, even when it’s someone else’s.
Despite our good intentions, we end up giving someone what we think they need—as if we know better—or even what we need ourselves. It all goes to hell when we offer advice in a way that can feel selfish or presumptuous, but not helpful.
Compassionate listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give to someone who’s suffering.
Here are a few things to remember as we work to improve our communication and our relationships:
Giving unsolicited advice doesn’t make us bad people, just misguided ones.
We mean well, we just weren’t taught how to listen compassionately. But hey, we’re willing to learn!
If someone isn’t asking for advice, they probably don’t want it.
As the advice we want to give takes on a life of its own, it wants—and needs—to come out. Just say no. We’ve got to bite our tongues, cover our mouths, hit the mute button—whatever it takes for us to sit quietly and listen.
Set boundaries with kindness.
If someone starts to give us unsolicited advice, it’s perfectly acceptable to stop them and let them know.
“I appreciate you wanting to help, but I really just need to vent right now.”
Setting this simple boundary goes a long way toward advocating for our needs—while clearly and kindly communicating them to the other person.
If we aren’t sure, just ask.
Sometimes, we aren’t sure what someone needs.
“Are you interested in advice, or do you just want to vent?”
This question is as helpful as it is powerful. We aren’t only communicating our willingness to help—we’re showing that we understand that the other person might just want to vent.
We’re respecting boundaries, communicating effectively, and remaining as helpful as possible.
We aren’t perfect, and we’ll probably mess this up.
And if we do, it’s not a big deal—if we just own it. I catch myself sometimes. The impulse to help gets the best of me, and I’ll stop myself mid-advice.
We can apologize, acknowledge that we messed up, and make it right by returning to compassionate listening.
It seems counterintuitive, but sometimes we can help much more by saying much less. The gift of compassionate listening doesn’t come wrapped in unsolicited advice—it comes from us providing a supportive space to help others find relief. And practicing a few simple skills can go a long way toward making that happen.
But like most things that are worthwhile, this takes work—especially when someone is hurting. I’m not perfect, but I’m willing to make the effort to learn how to ease suffering rather than add to it. How about you?