How to Unhook From Your Need to Give Advice

One of the most common yet annoying phrases one adult can say to another is, “You need to…” Most people, me included, regularly say this to colleagues, friends, and family. The problem is the statement is steeped in your judgement.

Unless someone asks you what you think they should do,
your opinion wasn’t invited.

It doesn’t matter if you were just trying to help. The message is that they are wrong or naive. Your reaction to whatever they said is that they aren’t acting right or they don’t know what to do.

If they are doubting their capabilities, they accept your judgement as confirmation that they don’t know enough, or they aren’t as good as you. You aren’t nurturing a healthy relationship with your habit of helping, especially if the person you are talking to depends on your approval.

The judgements that drive advice-giving are typical mental habits. Humans are unconsciously judgmental by nature. Every action you take from the moment you wake is based on what your brain judges is best for you. Your automatic judgments become patterns of unconscious micro-decisions allowing you to move through your days without spending time figuring out what to do next.

We constantly, unconsciously judge what is good or bad and right or wrong,
and then share this perspective with others.

Judging is easy; it doesn’t require much thinking. If you didn’t have judgement, it would be difficult to get out of bed every morning. It would be paralyzing to have to think through each choice and action.

 It would also be paralyzing to have to consciously choose your words and reactions to people. You would appear to be a slow thinker; few people would have the patience to have you deliberate everything every time you interact. Instead, your brain instantly discerns what to say or do, including judging the words and actions of others.

One of the best ways creating stronger relationships is to declare,
“I am a judgy, biased person.”

Generally, you make judgments with no intent to be malicious. Because you mean no harm, you instantly rationalize your judgy remarks and give excuses such as, “I didn’t mean it that way” or “I was just trying to help.” Your defensiveness and justification are meant to protect you.

You could also react negatively when you perceive someone discounts your knowledge or treats you as a child, something family members often do to each other. You don’t like to be told what to do when you didn’t ask for it, but it’s different when you tell people what they need to do, right?

Changing your judgement habit

To release the urge to tell people what they should do, you have to catch yourself in the moment and then activate the courage to let go. You choose to let go of being the expert or helper in order to be the friend, the leader, the parent, or coach who wants to hear their ideas before offering yours.

It is not easy overriding the urge to help. It takes staying present in the moment, more curious about how they think while catching your words before you say them.

The novelist Pico Iyer, having traveled with the Dalai Lama, said the one thing that seemed to give people reassurance and confidence was when the Dali Lama would answer their questions with, “I don’t know.” Iyer also says, “The opposite of knowledge isn’t always ignorance. It can be wonder.”

In The Neurophenomenology of Awe and Wonder the researchers created a scientific study to define awe and wonder as experienced by astronauts in space.1 The authors define wonder as two senses merged. “The first sense is closely tied to the feeling of awe; the second to the feeling of curiosity.” In other words, you experience wonder when you see something amazing, and then ponder what is going on instead of making instant assumptions.

You use a sense of wonder to let go of being the expert or helper. You remember you have an amazing human in front of you full of hopes and fears who is trying to sort things out with what they know. Can you start the conversation full of curiosity to discover their unique perspective and what it means to them when describing their situation? Toward the end, can you inquire about what they thought of doing but threw their thoughts away before you ask if they would like a suggestion from you? You further the conversation and strengthen the relationship with your consciousness, curiosity, and belief in the profound potential of others.

Releasing judgement is common sense but not common practice

The suggestion I am making in the post is not easy. Yes, I’m being the expert who is telling you to stop being the expert. I’m sharing with you what I will take a lifetime to fully learn myself. Practice will not make you perfect but it will make you better.

Also, letting go of knowing takes courage. You have to use willpower to consistently allow yourself to not know what is best for them; to be uncertain. Not knowing can leave you feeling vulnerable. You are a naked non-expert.

Start today so it becomes easier to be curious than useful. Deliberately practice even when it feels uncomfortable. You will soon find magic happens when you trust this process. Then forgive yourself for being human as you learn to be better each day.


[1] Gallagher, S. et al. (2015) The Neurophenomenology of Awe and WonderTowards a Non-reductionist Cognitive Science. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 22-23.

6 thoughts on “How to Unhook From Your Need to Give Advice”

  1. This is a fascinating challenge, for all of us, for none, however good we might feel we are, is immune to the judgement of others.

    As a coach, I must be aware of judging and let my clients see where the conversation goes. I’ve gradually got better at letting go of my ‘fix’ to challenges, and it is never easy.

    Noticing is the first step and then responding, rather than reacting, a distinction Stephen Covey talks about in ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

    We can but try.

    And forgive ourselves as best we can, that it is enough.

  2. Such a helpful post. My sister and I should have read this before the holidays! But, we can work with it now. Thanks for the excellent information.

  3. Marcia,
    always so insightful.
    Only a couple of days ago, the words came out of my mouth: “You need to decide what you’re going to do…”
    And yes, my client got a little upset saying “everybody tells me what I need to do…”
    And yes again, I said “I didn’t mean it that way..”

    Your post came right on time.
    Many thanks for this very valuable lesson

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