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How to Give Advice

giving adviceCan I give you some advice about how to give advice?

There’s an art to giving advice. If you get it right even bad advice (or advice that just isn’t the best fit for the person or situation) can come off positively. Get it wrong and even good advice can come across offensive or unsupportive.

Like most parents I have been on the receiving end of a range of advice. From the mind-blowing, life-changing, why-didn’t-anybody-tell-me-this-sooner advice to “Are you serious? Do you not know me at all?” all the way up to “Umm, thanks, but that advice could actually kill a baby.”

But, on the other hand, I do actually enjoy giving advice…if that isn’t obvious, here I am writing a “how to” give advice. My heart does flutter a little with excitement when people ask me for my opinion.. (Especially if it’s about buying prams, or baby carriers.)

So here goes, my advice about how to give advice:

Step One

Before you give advice ask yourself does this person actually want my advice? If they’re asking “Hey, what do you think I should do about this?” Then that’s pretty obvious they do want to hear what you have to say. But if they don’t actually ask, if they’re venting, complaining or even just sharing, this is where it’s really really important to work out if they actually need a second opinion – and specifically your opinion. You don’t have to be a mind reader for this one. You can ask. A simple “Would you like to hear my opinion?” or “Can I give you some advice?” or “Do you want to know what I would do?”

THEN – if they say “no thank you” you don’t give it to them anyway. You also don’t bear a grudge against them because they didn’t want to hear it. Maybe they already know what to do – maybe they don’t actually want to change anything – either way, there is no need for you to go on to step two.

Step Two

Be mindful of who it is you’re giving your advice to. Being asked, or getting permission, to give advice does not give you free rein to say whatever you want, no matter how correct you think you are.

I recently had someone give me some un-asked-for advice on Facebook and a short time later had a private message from another friend saying “Who is that? Have they even met you? What she said is the opposite of everything you do!” The advice itself wasn’t terrible. It just was a really bad fit for me and my family. Also I wasn’t looking for advice at the time, I was having a bad day with my charming threenager and I was venting. But even if I had added “WHAT SHOULD I DO?” at the end of my Facebook status, her advice would still have been out of line, because it was basically “Everything you are doing is completely wrong and you’re ruining your child.”

Step Three

You need to take into account where you are coming from.

For example; I have to be very careful when I’m talking about birthing, because I had a traumatic birth experience after an induced labour, and every time someone mentions they were going to be induced I have sirens going off inside my head telling me to beg them not to because in my mind it’s dangerous. BUT that was MY experience NOT theirs. My experience was not typical, it is not a common occurrence to be induced for 45 hours with an undiagnosed breech baby. However if someone asked my thoughts on the hospital my son was born at I have no problem telling them to look into all the alternatives first.

That said, if someone is asking you for your advice then it’s worth taking into consideration that there might be a reason they asked YOU. If someone asks me if I think they should wean their older baby or toddler, I assume they’re looking for validation and support to continue breastfeeding, because most people who know me would know I’ve breastfed two children for over three years each, they’re probably not looking for me to tell them “You should wean that child immediately!” when they know the advice I’ll most likely give is; “You should keep breastfeeding as long and you and your little one want to – to heck with what anyone else says.”

Step Four

Remember everyone is the expert of their own lives. Not you. Even if you think you know better – you probably don’t. Because nobody spends more time in their lives than they do. Nobody knows their children like they do. Nobody knows their body. And so on. Sometimes the most helpful thing is to ask questions and help them work out their own solutions.

What you don’t want to do is tell them you know more about their life than they do. I had a family member tell me – no… screech at me… that the reason my son was waking at night was because he was HUNGRY. I had just said the reason he’d been particularly unsettled for the previous few weeks was because he’d had a round of gastro, followed by popping out 8 teeth in a fortnight. But, obviously I couldn’t possibly know what is going on in my own child’s gums, or what had been rocketing out of his mouth and bottom a few weeks prior. Her amazing (terrible) solution was that I needed to put farax in his milk and slice off the nipple. Which is a horrific mental image when you take into account that I was breastfeeding him. Holy heck that would hurt.

Step Five

Ask yourself are you qualified to give advice on this topic? I don’t mean formal qualifications (though they also help) but I mean, do you have actual experience with what the person is dealing with?

If your baby slept through the night at 6 weeks because you put them down “sleepy but awake” and they just fell asleep on their own, please – please – do not tell me how to get my 3 year old to sleep through the night in her own bed. Just don’t. If “putting her down sleepy but awake” worked I would have done that 3 years ago.

Step Six

The delivery! How you deliver the advice can make or break it. Firstly avoid the word “Should”. “Should”ing on people isn’t cool.

How I usually give advice is just like this…..

Like what?

Like that sentence right above there.

Instead of saying “You should do *this*” try wording your advice as:

If I was in that situation I would do *this* Or “I have done is *this* and the result was *that*

You can also be helpful, and less personal, to say something like “I read a book/article about that and *this* is what it suggested.” Even if you are qualified in your own experiences, it can be a good idea to back yourself up with an actual expert. If possible be specific about your source, so if they like your advice they can read that book, or find that article later.

Though having an “expert” on your side does not mean you can forget all of the above steps. Like the time my mother in law told me to stop breastfeeding because apparently her doctor said “breast milk has nothing in it after one year.” That advice failed Steps 1 through 5 – even IF her doctor did actually say that (also, that means her doctor is an idiot).

Step Seven

This is a bonus step, that should be used whether or not you actually give the advice you’re itching to share.

Offer them empathy.

Empathy is free and often so much more helpful than advice. Empathy can also be hard, and a little scary, and not to be confused with sympathy. My advice is, if you’re not sure about the difference between empathy and sympathy, or how to offer empathy, watch this video below.

*Disclaimer* If they or their child, is at immediate risk of harm, definitely say something. But you want to be very very sure about this one. For example if someone posts a picture on Facebook of their baby in an incorrectly fitted car seat, go ahead and let them know that it’s unsafe and how to correct it. Still be polite about it, but sometimes something needs to be said, because some people just don’t know what they just don’t know. 

But if you’re not sure, it’s better to say nothing – or at least ask someone why they are doing what they are doing to get some more insight about what is really going on – like the lovely older couple who approached me in the supermarket to tell me that my baby carrier would do “irreparable damage” to my baby’s brain, because the back of the carrier didn’t go up over her head. She was sitting up at that age, so there was no concern with her head control, also having a baby’s head inside a carrier is a suffocation risk, so I was carrying my baby was perfectly safe and appropriate for her age. I appreciate they were concerned, but they also had no idea what they were talking about – if they’d asked me about the carrier first I would have happily told them ALL about it. 

About Rachel Stewart

Rachel is the founder of Parenting Central Australia. She is raising two children, boy and girl, with her partner.

She has a background in early childhood education, but right now is content to be a stay at home mum.

She is passionate about birthing rights, breastfeeding and mental health. She enjoys crafting, drinking coffee (sometimes wine) and spending a little too much time on Facebook.

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