How to Give Advice Without Being a Jerk About It

I have mixed results with giving advice. Sometimes I get a sincere thank-you, sometimes I never hear from the individual again, leaving me to wonder if it was what I said or how I said it. This is obviously not to say I’ve never handled advice-giving situations badly (I have), but I’ve now been dispensing free advice on this site and in person for ten years now and more people keep reading, so maybe I’m doing a few things right.

What do I mean by being a jerk?

Many people don’t like asking for help because they’d rather figure things out for themselves. Then, too, some people haven’t liked the responses they’ve gotten when they have asked. What would put off someone from seeking advice?

  • Condescension. Examples include saying things like, “You mean you don’t already know that? Are you stupid or something?” or lecturing someone just to show them how superior you are to them.
  • Jumping to conclusions. Sometimes a subject matter expert knows their subject so well that they’ll make assumptions about their questioner’s intent and start answering the wrong question. 
  • Being too busy…ever. Some folks manage to make time for their personal pet projects but never make the time to help others.
  • Protecting your turf. This is a problem for anyone who has the “knowledge is power” mentality and believes that if someone else knows what they know, they’ll no longer have their critical abilities.
  • Giving incomplete answers. You come to someone with a multi-part question, and they only answer one part, leaving you to muddle through the rest.

None of those reactions are fun, are they? And if you’re responding like this to people asking for input, advice, or help, you might want to rethink your choices.

Being considerate in giving advice

Here are some alternatives to the behaviors listed above that are more likely to get more people seeking your knowledge or wisdom.

  • Show consideration for your questioner. This means starting with something simple like thanking them for their question. Next, answer in a spirit of helpfulness.
  • Listen. I use this advice a lot in this blog, but it’s worth noting (I need reminders myself periodically). Be certain you understand what they’re asking before you provide an answer they don’t need.
  • Make the time. If you’re busy, you’re busy. That happens. However, if you are not busy but don’t want to be bothered, that’s a mistake, and it can cost you friendships (trust me on this one).
  • Be generous with your knowledge. I’m not terribly territorial, even about the work I love best–aerospace writing. If you want to know how I do what I do or how you can do it, I’ll answer. Rather than worrying about being “indispensable,” it’s better to be thought of as a helpful, knowledgable expert. There’s another corporate synonym for indispensable, and that’s “unpromotable.”
  • Answer completely. If your questioner has more than one question or a multi-part question, make sure you address everything they ask…without belaboring the point. It’s best to ask, “Did I answer all of your questions?” just to be certain.

And, again, I’m not always perfect about these behaviors, but these are my goals, given especially since I’ve made many mistakes over the years by exhibiting the first set of behaviors. You might be the most knowledgable person in your line of work, but if you’re a jerk about how you share that knowledge, you could very quickly find people asking others for advice just to save themselves the aggravation.

Food for thought. Have a pleasant Thursday.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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