Turns out, I was contributing more negativity than I thought.

Unsolicited advice isn’t always a bad thing. Like all things, though, it’s good in moderation, and I was starting to worry that I was doling out advice too quickly and too often.

“No problem,” I thought. “I’ll give it up for a week. Or a month. Maybe I’ll learn something!”

I did learn something. I learned that, wow, this habit was harder to break than I had expected. As it turns out, my conversations are absolutely peppered with “You should . . .” or, “Have you tried . . .” or the oblique, “If I were you . . .” Even when I’m trying not to, I still catch myself using those phrases too often.

But in spite of my failure to give up the habit altogether, I can already see that learning to limit the unsolicited advice I dole out is worth the effort—not just for the sake of whoever’s receiving the advice, but for my sake, too.

Why it’s bad for me

Even when I have a good idea, jumping in to tell you what you need just reinforces something I’m constantly trying to unlearn: the idea that I know what you need better than you do. I might have a great idea, but I’m not you. You’re the only one who knows the ins and outs of your problem well enough to know what the right solution looks like—and it can be presumptuous on my part to forget that. My desire to help might just be a condescending attitude in disguise.

More importantly, it sabotages a habit that all of us ought to be cultivating, which is in such short supply these days—the habit of active listening. Not judging, not problem-solving, not listening for the sole purpose of responding, but just listening. It’s not easy, but isn’t it something that all of us look for in a friend? Somebody who truly hears us? Actively listening is one of the most powerful ways to show somebody that you love and respect them, but too much advice can easily eclipse that message.

Why it’s bad for the recipient of my advice

Even when my advice ends up actually being helpful, I’ve accidentally sent you a clear message that I think you can’t handle something on your own. I’ve noticed that I’m not as quick to offer advice to people I look up to, which is telling. As well-meant as my input might be, sometimes all I end up conveying is disrespect.

A lot of the time, my advice minimizes the scope of your problem, too. If it’s so simple that I can think of the answer on the spot, how bad can it really be, right? And it changes the conversation from one where friends share their worries to one where you need help and I can rescue you. Suddenly, the equal ground on which we stand is uneven.

When I’m on the receiving end of advice I don’t want, I usually just nod and smile, and say something vague like, “Oh yeah, I could try that.” It’s not exactly dishonest, but I say it for your sake, not for mine because I know that people like to feel helpful. But it also puts me in an awkward position. If I don’t intend to go with your plan, I must either find a way (somewhat deceptively) to try and make you feel like you’ve helped me out or explain why it’s not going to work. In both cases, a conversation that started out as me sharing what’s on my mind has turned into a problem-solving session that I never wanted.

What I’m learning

In the end, taking a hard look at this habit of mine turned out to be eye-opening, and maybe a little more humbling than I was hoping it would be. Now, when I jump in to offer somebody a suggestion, I’m more aware of the person who I should have been focusing on all along—my friend, not myself. And, I’m starting to check myself and ask the right questions: Am I really trying to help, or do I just want to look knowledgeable? Have I actually been listening, or was I just waiting for my turn to respond? Is my friend actually looking for help, or do they just need a sympathetic ear?

Most importantly, I’m starting to remember that human life, with all of its struggle and frustration, is never as straightforward as I’d like it to be. It’s a messy world we live in, after all. There isn’t always a neat and tidy answer to our problems—but maybe that’s okay.