Live and let live – or the noble art of giving and receiving advice

Unsolicited advice

It seems that one of the more fashionable “new words”, at least in the Swedish debate, is mansplaining. Believed to be originating in 2008, Wikipedia defines it as “to explain something to someone, characteristically by a man to woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing“.

While mainly being used in a feminist context describing a male master suppression technique, I believe the phenomenon, although most often in a less suppressive format, is more universal and not gender-specific.

As part of the human creative drive, we (men and women alike) look at situations with the view of improvement. Without this drive, we would probably still be hunting zebras and gathering roots at the savannah.

The social beings we are, we also want to communicate our views to those around us. When we see someone doing something in a way we feel is either wrong, or at least not the most effective, we therefore tend to tell the other person, sometimes ignoring the fact that he or she may be more skilled and experienced than we are, and that there are many roads leading to the same destination.

Advising is necessary when parenting our children. While the small child, may (at least sometimes) accept the advice, the issue becomes different as the child grows up to a rebellious teenager. Finding your own ways, and making your own mistakes is a necessary part of growing up, and the wise parent picks the fights and try instead to provide a safe space for their youngsters’ explorations.

The urge to walk one’s own paths throughout life is especially strong among the highly creative individuals, but we all carry it within us. Most of us want to do things our own ways, and only recieve others’ advice when we ourselves seek it. I think this goes equally for both men and women. However, I do believe there is (and please excuse me for generalising) one important gender difference in how we handle advice.

A man often works self-reliently in silence until he gets stuck. And when he eventually tells others about the problem, he does it with the, sometimes unspoken, wish to get the other person’s views on how to find a solution.

When on the other hand a women tells about a problem, she may want advice, but if not specifically asking for it, she may equally well just want someone to listen and to acknowledge her feelings. This gives self-assurance, and afterwards she would go back to the problem and solve it by herself.

If the other person (in this case often a man) instead of listening, interprets the situation as a cry for help and starts giving advice, he may find himself in a situation of being accused of “not listening” and “always wanting to fix things“. In the end both persons may get their feelings hurt, and this gender difference could possibly also play some part in the mansplaining phenomenon.

Common to most men and women, I believe, is the inner rebellious teenager wanting to do things our own way. This is a way of life-long growing, learning and developing.

Receiving unsolicited advice, is therefore not something we usually appreciate, unless we really are in a situation when we are stuck, and a normal reaction would instead be to do the opposite even though we realise that this is a bit childish.

In our handling of advice (giving or receiving) we thus need to be more sensitive, and I will now give my (unsolicited) advice on the matter.

When seeing room for improvements in the way another person is dealing with something, we should avoid giving advice, instead we should be offering  advice. By simply saying “I’ see that you have a challenging task. I’m here for you if you want to discuss what you are doing” and then being silent, you will give the other person an option and open up for a dialogue at his or her conditions.

Presented this way, most persons would seize the opportunity to discuss if the issue really is problematic. If on the other hand the situation is under control, no feelings are being hurt.

When receiving unsolicited advice from another person, instead of feeling hurt, a “Zen approach” could be to simply and honestly say “Thank you very much for your advice. I value it and I will consider what you are saying”. That will likely end the conversation, and you would remain free to handle the situation the way you choose, either follow the advice or not.

The other person would also feel respected, and would in the end not lose face if you choose to ignore what was said. If instead you would start arguing, both of you may find yourselves in opposing, defensive positions with a risk of an unpleasant and unnecessary argument.

In real life, all this is easier said than done, and time after time we find ourselves in a situation where the tongue is faster than the thought. But being aware of what is happening is an important step towards improving the interaction.

In the end, and knowing that I (again) may be out on thin ice, I can’t resist sharing the illustrative video It’s not about the nail”.

svensk_flagga Detta blogginlägg på svenska

Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

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