Unsolicited Advice – People Who Want To Help In The Worst Way Usually Do

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Executive Summary

I post a lot about nutrition, exercise and other health and wellness topics with the intent of encouraging critical thinking about those topics. I often assert my opinion in  those pieces. Sometimes I say what I’d do in a certain situation. I often offer a menu of choices for people who aren’t me (it comes as a total shock but apparently there are lots of people who aren’t me). If you don’t want to do those things, there’s nothing in the world I can write that’ll convince you otherwise. And that’s the way advice works in general. Giving people advice when they’re not ready to receive it is annoying and may elicit outright rebellion. The intention may be good. The result rarely is. This post explains a little about change theory and the best time and method for giving advice.

Resistance isn’t Futile. Fighting Resistance is Futile

I had a family member who struggled with obesity all the time that I knew him (in this story, I’ll refer to him as “family member” or “FM”*). He knew this wasn’t good for his long-term health but nothing he tried would keep the weight off. And when there was an attempt to do something about it, it would follow one of these two scenarios.

  1. Family member would decide it’s time to make a change. FM would adopt some new eating plan and the pounds would begin to shed. But, as is totally normal with most diets, FM would eventually eat something that wasn’t part of the plan. I’m not talking about falling completely off the wagon here. I mean enjoying a sample of potato salad at a family gathering or maybe drink a spirited beverage at a birthday party. One small slip among 30 events of complete compliance. Well, FM’s spouse’s reaction was completely out of proportion. Rather than showing support, providing affirmation for the 30 good things that were done and creating a learning experience, spouse would yell, nag and call names. How well do you think that worked? OR
  2. Family member’s spouse would unilaterally decide that it was time for FM to lose weight. After a highly stressful day of work (note: maybe reducing the stress would be a better start to improving health than restrictive eating), spouse  welcomed FM with a dinner of plain broiled boneless skinless chicken breast and a salad (with bottled fat-free dressing that was probably loaded with sugar and that blocked the beneficial nutrients in the salad). Or if FM was really lucky, there’d be a frozen Lean Cuisine waiting. And we all know that Lean Cuisine looks even more appetizing in real life than it does in the picture on the box.
    Lean-Cuisine-Thai-Style-Chicken
    Do you think FM ate this way when at work or running an errand?

Both scenarios are examples of what happens when you try to get people to change and you take away their autonomy and their self-respect. You know where else that kind of behavior change happens? Prison.

It’s an extreme example and I realize that a single anecdote about one person doesn’t correlate to the population in general. But there are tons of studies that show that what happened above with family member is normal human nature (Hey! Here’s one of those studies now! And here’s another one!)

OK, Then When Should I Give Advice?

You should give advice when the intended target is ready for advice. It’s an easy answer with an explanation beyond the scope of one blog post. Health Coaches spend much of their training time learning how to motivate people to want to change and then driving that change in a way that won’t cause push back or remission.

Good health coaches have a keen ear for change language. We listen for when people express the desire or need to change and when there’s a firm commitment for change (Hey, see what I did there? I went from “good health coaches” to “we.” Get it?) Coaches guide their clients along this spectrum and engage differently depending on where they land. And we do all that by honoring the client’s values and autonomy.

So You’re Telling Me Only Professionals Can Give Advice?

No. I am just saying giving advice is easy. Ensuring that advice has the desired intent is hard. It’s an art and a science. Here are some guidelines.

  1. Be sure you have the kind of relationship where advice is warranted. The Family Member couple surely loved each other. But their marriage was of a time and type in which a spouse’s advice to a husband was limited to “Ward, don’t you think you were a bit hard on the Beave?”
  2. Apply sparingly. Drip-drip-drip is more effective than a fire hose.
  3. Wait until you’re asked or at the very least ask permission first. ‘Nuff said.
  4. Respect autonomy. Make it clear that this is a matter of your target’s personal choice. Do this in a way that is, unlike what I’ve done here, sincere and devoid of irony or sarcasm.
  5. Offer options. Family member has a lot going on that could contribute to weight struggles. Lean Cuisine was not the only solution. What about starting with increased physical activity? How about managing stress? Or eat all the unhealthy food you love, just less of it? One-size-fits-all solutions do not address most health challenges. And whether or not family member knew it, only family member knew which one would work at any give time. This holds true for everyone.

And if all else fails, see if the desired recipient of your advice is willing to speak with a Health Coach. I know where he or she can contact a good one. 😉

*Family Member is not family member’s real name. The name has been changed to protect privacy.

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