advice that feels like bullying
March 25, 2019 5:20 AM   Subscribe

How to respond appropriately to advice that feels like an order?

I have a few friends who give advice (good advice) which comes across as an order. e.g. "Your problem is x. I don't know why you don't do y. Just do y."

My instinct is to react really poorly to advice like this which has led to the odd contretemps. I find it stressful, and I don't like being bullied, as I see it. The last time this happened, I'd been talking about measures I was taking to fix a thing, when my friend jumped in with a "Omg I don't know why you don't just do Y instead. It's so obvious you need to do Y. You're miserable. You need to do Y right now." I said, "I have a schedule for this. I can't just do it right off the bat like that. I'm not asking for advice. You're stressing me out" and it all got a bit heated. My friend said if I didn't want advice I should just stop talking about my problems. This hurt my feelings but I guess I do process my problems by talking them through. But I hadn't actually asked for her advice.

I can't figure out who's right and who's wrong in a scenario like this. It happens a lot. I have clever, involved friends who look out for me, it's not just one particular friend. But sometimes they couch their advice in terms that I find problematic. This kind of thing feels to me like bullying even if the content of the advice is good. I have deep-seated issues with being pushed around as a child and it's possible I overreact when I feel like this is happening. Am I wrong to feel this way? What is a better way to respond? How would you politely and appropriately push back in this kind of situation without being ungracious or inappropriate? Should I stop talking about stuff that's going on with me so as to stop being on the receiving end of unwanted advice?
posted by unicorn chaser to Human Relations (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It’s not wrong for them to offer advice but it’s not right for them to continue pushing it when you’ve specifically asked them not to.
posted by raccoon409 at 5:23 AM on March 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

There are so many shades of experience between "only advice I want" and "bullying."

I do think you're reacting a bit out of your childhood but the solution is probably earlier in the conversation. Try asking for what you want before you present your issue. Like this: "I am so frustrated with work...can I ask you to just listen and not give advice? I don't want advice right now, just an ear."

If you are getting unwanted advice, there is a lighter way to deal with it which is "huh...I'll think about that." And then just shelve it. Other phrases are "I really appreciate the thought you put into that," "thanks for caring enough to share your ideas," "I'm glad to hear how you would handle it." You may not technically be glad but I assume that since you're making a choice to share with these friends, there's a reason for it.

Given that you say it happens a lot, it may also be that you have fallen into a conversational pattern where you are always trying to connect through sharing challenges. Try sharing successes or asking them more about their lives. That may help break the pattern.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:29 AM on March 25, 2019 [34 favorites]

Most of the time when people react to your problem like this, it's because you've come to them with the same problem or the same kind of problem multiple times and they're sick of hearing about it. Take it as a sign you're offloading on them too much and either take their advice or find someone else to be your ear for the problem. Unless there's something you've left out, there is no way this falls into something in the realm of bullying.
posted by ryanbryan at 5:38 AM on March 25, 2019 [77 favorites]

I have the same problem of reacting poorly or overreacting to unsolicited advice even if it's good. To avoid these situations, if I want advice, I ask for it explicitly. "Ugh. I need your opinion about what I should do about such and such." Or I preface the conversation with: "Ugh. I need to vent." And when I'm done, I'll say: "Okay, rant over." It's important not to overshare or repeatedly share the same problem with my caring but highly opinionated friends. When friends keep offering advice instead of just listening, it's a sign that I've been sharing the same old problem too often and they're tired of hearing about it.
posted by Elsie at 5:38 AM on March 25, 2019 [8 favorites]

Remember you never know what sensitive places other people might be coming from; maybe your friend is particularly sensitive to what feels like rejection and acted defensively because of that.

So seconding the advice to actually talk about this with friends, ideally not at a time when you're in the midst of such an interaction, and especially with the closer ones you could also try telling them about your sensitivity to strongly worded suggestions or feeling pressured. And remember that if someone gets a little upset or forgets sometimes not to be bossy, it's not necessarily a reflection of how they feel about you or your friendship; it could also be that it takes them a few tries to overcome their own ingrained habits and defences.
posted by trig at 5:41 AM on March 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think there are plenty of people who want to complain without getting advice, but there are also plenty of people who find it stressful to listen to someone's problems without offering a solution. If someone tells you to stop telling them about your problems if you don't want advice, they're setting a boundary too, and you should probably stop telling that person about your problems unless you want advice.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:45 AM on March 25, 2019 [60 favorites]

I have deep-seated issues with being pushed around as a child and it's possible I overreact when I feel like this is happening. Am I wrong to feel this way?

I was writing a comment asking if this was the case, a childhood experience influencing your response, when I saw the above bit below the fold of the OP.

Right or wrong, a healthy approach would probably involve trying to detach the previous experience, and the feeling that you're being manipulated, from your reaction to your friend in the present day. (Assuming you don't think your friend is trying to manipulate you on this occasion.)

I'd say it makes sense to be annoyed by advice being formulated this way; just make sure that's what you're really reacting to rather than a perceived, but not genuine, attempt at manipulation that's merely an echo of your previous mistreatment.
posted by XMLicious at 5:51 AM on March 25, 2019

If they are phrasing it in exactly the way you are describing, then they lack social/emotional intelligence and are being a bit rude. I wouldn't necessarily call it bullying, but there are much better ways of phrasing advice. Also, you are allowed to talk about your problems without looking for advice. A real friend listens and comforts as well as gives advice when they have it/are asked. Saying otherwise comes across as "if you don't want to inflate my ego by taking my solution as gospel then don't bother me," which isn't very friend-like. It's narcissistic.
posted by hypercomplexsimplicity at 5:59 AM on March 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

I can't figure out who's right and who's wrong in a scenario like this. It happens a lot. I have clever, involved friends who look out for me, it's not just one particular friend.

It happens a lot, and it happens with multiple friends...

Rather than framing this as "right" and "wrong" I'm going to say that your friends are giving you some signals that they are hearing about the same problems too much. I have friends who want to ruminate on their problems - legit problems, and tough ones that in some cases are just unsolveable - and then get really offended when people say, well, anything that isn't "there there, you poor dear. Please continue."

Should I stop talking about stuff that's going on with me so as to stop being on the receiving end of unwanted advice?

If you don't like the response you're getting when you talk about your problems with multiple people who are "clever, involved friends" who look out for you, then you might want to consider dialing back how much you talk about your problems.
posted by jzb at 6:00 AM on March 25, 2019 [7 favorites]

I think you guys are right and I should probably reexamine the content of my conversation - I've had an extremely difficult time of it lately (it's getting better now, though) and I suppose during that period my conversation has been kind of one-note. I'll try to be more conscious of that.

...and it happens with multiple friends...

It's 3 highly opinionated friends in particular. I can keep in mind that when I am with them, maybe venting about life stuff isn't the best topic for conversation.
posted by unicorn chaser at 6:13 AM on March 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you don't want to fight with them, you can always go for "I understand what you're saying, but I think I'll stick with my plan."

I'm bossy and very opinionated, and I still think this is sort of bullying behavior (or, at a minimum, it demonstrates impatience and potentially contempt). Impatience might mean that you're complaining a lot. But it might also mean that they're condescending and think that you're just missing obvious solutions that they'd obviously come up with. That's a nasty assumption for a friend to make.

The reason that this might feel like bullying to you is that some people react badly to temporary setbacks in confidence. When someone is feeling low, they react by being aggressive and treating that person like they're beneath them. Do you think this is happening here, that these friends are being aggressive because you're temporarily in a bad spot? If so, you're right to pick it out as a poor quality in a person, and a quality that you might not want in a friend.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:20 AM on March 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

Your problem is x. I don't know why you don't do y. Just do y.

If someone hit me with that particular phrasing, I'd probably be inclined to respond, "If you don't know why I don't do y, you should maybe ask that question before assuming the only problem is that I'm too stupid to have considered y."
posted by solotoro at 6:24 AM on March 25, 2019 [5 favorites]

You seem to be getting a lot of pushback here, and I'm going to disagree with it. This happens to me a lot and I really hate it.

I've received almost no useful advice in my life, ever, so of course when I'm mentioning dilemmas I'm thinking about, I've already explored all the easy options. People who expect to receive moral support don't have this issue, so they casually throw concerns open to people before thinking in depth. And then when the superficial answer comes, they're OK to say "No, that's not it", and everyone gets the conversation they want, and feels supported.

I don't know the fix, but examining that pattern (frequent & easy support vs rare & complex) seems to be a good way to go.

One other thing that happens is that I get the advice when I'm not expecting or looking for advice, and that's really tricky. I just have had to constrain what I'm willing to talk about with some people.
posted by ambrosen at 6:33 AM on March 25, 2019 [8 favorites]

I wouldn’t say you can’t talk to them about life stuff! You can definitely still do that. I think it’s a good point that these friends may be responding to hearing the same problems over and over. I’ve had friends who do this and I have trouble being with them. It can seem like they never move closer to a solution and are only using me as something to complain AT, rather than an individual person. It can be hard to think of anything new to say back, especially if I’ve listened to the same issues before and already used my stash of generic thoughtful responses for someone who wants no input, so there’s some mental labor there. I’m usually wondering how many more times we’ll talk about this same thing and whether or not I even need to be there or if the friend can give the same complaint monologue to anyone. It doesn’t mean they can’t talk to me about their lives, but it’s labor for your friend.
posted by Yoko Ono's Advice Column at 6:34 AM on March 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

A lot of people bristle at advice. In German there's a saying "Ratschläge sind auch Schläge" (= "Giving advice is like hitting" - "Ratschlag" contains the word "Schlag", which translates to "hit"). The idea is that you shouldn't be surprised when people react badly to advice, because lots of people do perceive it as an imposition. So if that's any consolation, you're certainly not alone.

I'm not always terribly grateful about unasked for advice either, especially when it's something super obvious. If the solution to my problem were really that simple wouldn't I have thought of that myself? Clearly, I conclude, the advice giver can't have too high an opinion of my general intelligence. Then I remind myself that I too am sometimes too quick with the unasked for advice, and I never factor in the recipients likely knowledge on the issue, because I just don't think about it that much - it's nothing but a kneejerk impulse "I know! I know!" dating back from my dark past as a teacher's pet. I guess some of us just got too much praise for their contributions regardless of their relevance at a formative period or something, and that can be a hard habit to kick.

Or maybe that's just me. But generally I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people just didn't think that much before giving advice, and I generelly feel it would be premature to attach too much meaning to it in such cases. Some people just give advice to hear the sound of their own voice, or because they are umcomfortable with silence, or because they don't want to hear anything about this topic any more (which, as some people have already pointed out, can be fair enough, especially if it's something you keep bringing up without trying much to change things).

And the good news is, if that's the case, they're fairly unlikely to be actually terribly invested in whether you follow their advice or not. In such cases I just say "I'll think about it" and then just, you know, don't do that, and remember not to bring up that topic again with that person. No harm, no foul.

For me, the bullying and manipulation would only start if that person then kept insisting that I actually implemented the advice, and kept checking on me, whether I already did, and criticized me for choosing to go with a different approach, etc. But that rarely happens.

Maybe advice stresses you out, because you feel like you owe a friend a justification for ignoring their counsel, but you really don't, and most people will be perfectly fine, if you just don't provide it.
posted by sohalt at 6:51 AM on March 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

I don't know if this is what's going on for you, but sometimes, because of a childhood with a difficult parent, I find myself drawn to people who are fundamentally healthy to be around, but share some of that parent's traits. I think it's a way of seeking comfort and healing without the risks, you know? But sometimes those people happen to act a little too much like my parent, and it can be triggering even though they didn't actually do anything bad. Just something to consider, I guess. Your feelings aren't wrong, in any case, and backing off on venting to these folks seems sensible.
posted by teremala at 7:06 AM on March 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

(I realize now that in your example your friend has implicitely asked you for justification by saying "I don't know why you don't do ..." etc, and I agree that's out of line. I would still suggest just ignoring this implicit demand for a justification and see what happens, I still think probably not much. Giving advice can be an effective way to shut down a topic, but so is "I'll think about it". )
posted by sohalt at 7:06 AM on March 25, 2019

This kind of thing feels to me like bullying even if the content of the advice is good. I have deep-seated issues with being pushed around as a child and it's possible I overreact when I feel like this is happening. Am I wrong to feel this way?

I mean, you're not wrong, but at the same time you cannot expect other people to conduct themselves within the confines of your childhood, you know? That is not a reasonable expectation. I think you've had a lot of good advice here on how to manage your friendships with specific people to get what you need, though, so that may help this ease up.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:00 AM on March 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

I have been the friend who bursts out with unwanted advice sometimes after hearing the same problem a bunch of times. It's not that I'm tired of hearing the same thing and am, like, bored conversationally. I'm just tired of what sometimes feels like watching my friends bang their heads against the wall. It's heartbreaking to watch someone you care about ruminate in a way that from where I sit seems painful and inevitable and circular for them. I want them to stop torturing themselves though I am admittedly not artful about the best way to help and have limited tools myself. I'm sorry you're going through a rough time.
posted by sestaaak at 8:25 AM on March 25, 2019 [5 favorites]

I think phrasing it as "You're stressing me out" changes the focus of the conversation in a way that they might be viewing as an accusation.

You could, and I apologize if I come off like the advice-givers here, preface such conversations with "I just need to vent, I'm not looking for advice!" A lot of people will get that. For those that don't, but you still feel like you want to talk to them, try some variation of "Hmm, I hadn't considered that. I'll have to think that over." Then, either file their recommendation in the back of your mind until you're able to consider it or dismiss it completely. You're speaking of your plans in the present tense, and then evaluating their advice with the same urgency. You don't have to!
posted by mikeh at 8:29 AM on March 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

Some advice is a bit obvious and urgent. You should get that rash looked at. I find it more useful to add an explanation That looks like BlahBlah allergy, and there's prescription medication that will clear it up and avoid infection. Ask.Me is famous for DTMFA (Ditch The MoFo Already), which I find not-useful most of the time without the reasoning behind the advice.

Maybe you feel like people are not respectful to you. You can work on that as an issue.

Some people don't tend to explain. Ask them Tell me why you think I should buy the Prius and not the Rav4?

If people are giving you 'signals' ask Do I talk about my X too much? Thank people when they listen to your problems Thanks for listening, I needed to unload about work. And ask them about their lives How is your Thing project going? Did you get the materials you wanted? because friendship means sharing and tracking what's going on in their lives.

If you were bullied as a kid, you may have some behavior habits that make it easier for people to bully you. This is why I limit time with certain members of my family; there's only so much microaggression I can absorb and deflect. They are so used to me being the little sister, they don't even hear it. This is not easy to identify and resolve, but be your best self, don't accept crap, be confident. Yeah, easier said than done. When I am ill or experiencing depression or crisis, people bully me because my defenses are down, and bullies sense it and do their thing. Push back when people tell you what to do with no explanation, but do it by acting as if their behavior is okay, and you are asking for more information. I think it will become apparent who is respectful and who is not so much.
posted by theora55 at 8:39 AM on March 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

because of a childhood with a difficult parent, I find myself drawn to people who are fundamentally healthy to be around, but share some of that parent's traits.

This is definitely me and I can relate to some of your question. I have some strongly-opinionated friends, who I love for most things, who sometimes see me as "not handling" something and upset about it so they swoop in to try to fix it for me. It comes from a good place, but it absolutely feels like I'm being harassed by them. You see it in AskMe a lot too actually "LAWYER NOW" I see it as anxiety-based sometimes, that sort of advice.

To make things weirder, I am also the "fixer" for some other friends, though I'm not usually the overt harasser type about it, just more like "Have you considered this?" so I get why someone might try to give advice over and over, particularly if someone's got a few of the same low-level concerns. For example, my sister can be a little like this, where she sort of vents about a topic and I have some ideas about what might help and she's considered ALL of them (she's very smart) and then starts trotting out reasons why none of them will work, the result being that nothing happens and she sort of waits for the world to change. Sometimes if I literally just override her concerns we can make progress (taking out all her old boxes, for example, which are bothering her but there are $REASONS why none of her solutions will work but if I put them in my car and whisk them away it's ok) and so that sets up a bad dynamic where, actually, overriding her concerns does work sometimes. We're family though so it's a little different.

Back to your friends though. I've found that sometimes if I can get a little remove from the situation I can just ask them "Hey why are you pushing on this?" and sometimes it will make them pause and realizing that what they are doing really DOES sound like pushing, and sometimes it can open the door for them to be like "You've been bitching about this for six months and doing nothing and I'd like to see some movement!" So maybe see if you can get a little more clarity without jumping to "You're stressing me out (which, even if true, does turn the situation oppositional which your friend may not have considered was what they were already doing to you)
posted by jessamyn at 8:41 AM on March 25, 2019 [7 favorites]

I'm with you! And warriorqueen and elsie have it. elsie's idea to say "Ugh. I need to vent" has worked very well in my life.

The basic dynamic here is extremely common and well-documented in "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus" - with a HUGE CAVEAT that I don't think people's desires & reactions are split along gender lines, like the author suggests. But this 'empathy vs. advice' misunderstanding is so common that I think it's an extremely important insight.

In my experience, MOST people want to hear empathy when we're working through a problem, unless we explicitly ask for advice. When people tell me what to do, it feels like an insult because I *know* what I'm going to do, I just want acknowledgement that getting there is a pain. I just want to know that someone else understands. I've even found that even the pushiest advice-givers typically ALSO just want empathy when the tables are turned and they're telling me about their problems. But I also think most of us are socialized with a short-circuit to offer advice before empathy, even upon reflecting that we'd want the opposite. I've had to train myself out of offering advice. I wish it was a more explicit part of etiquette that we should probably all try empathy first, then advice.

I'm the friend that lots of friend turn to with their problems because I listen, and try to phrase even the mildest advice of 'i'm sure you've tried this already, what happened when you tried it?' - this phrasing gives them credit for being capable, wise, and intelligent.

I have 'safe' people to vent to, and some that are sort of in-the-middle - these friends need gentle reminders that I'm not looking for advice. I'll also note that the things I complain about are not usually problems for very long and I consider myself a solution-oriented person (I think my friends do too), so I don't think my past issues of frequently getting hurt this same way arose from being someone who wallows without actually trying to make things better.

I have childhood issues that make me more sensitive to this sort of thing too, but I think I've been able to make changes and take measures to roll with it without needing to isolate myself to "only the most sensitive friends ever" or something.
posted by leemleem at 8:58 AM on March 25, 2019 [5 favorites]

My friend said if I didn't want advice I should just stop talking about my problems.

Well, modify that to you should stop talking about your problems to that friend, maybe. They've demonstrated that their response to being told problems is advice. They may not be good at the kind of non-advice response you're looking for, and it may be a matter of temperament as your discomfort with blunt advice is. There's not much right or wrong here, but you may not get what you want from this friend in this situation. Maybe that's fine? Different friends meet different needs.
posted by Smearcase at 9:05 AM on March 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

Maybe looking at it as if it is just their habit might help? They probably do it to everyone, not just you. If you start to listen to conversations you may notice that so many people use the world ‘should’ and tell others what to do. It often comes from their own need to feel relevant and has nothing to do with you. Whenever I catch myself in a conversation saying ”you should” I try to rephrase it away from a command. It could also be cultural. I’m in the U.S. and people tell me what I should do all day long. It’s not personal.
posted by MountainDaisy at 9:20 AM on March 25, 2019

You can also couch things as, "Ugh so evicting my roommate is TERRIBLE, I know what I need to do and it's a step-by-step process, it's just that I'm on step three and I am SUPER READY to be on step 100 and I know I'll get there but in the MEANTIME I'm living with a crazy person who threw a pot of spaghetti at me and I am LOSING. MY. SHIT." or whatever.

Like there's a difference between just-complaining-about-life-in-a-circular-way, and having a plan and working the plan but still being really stressed out by the situation and/or the steps needed to fix the situation. Sometimes if you make sure to frame your complaint as "I'm doing the solution, but in the meantime this is extremely stressful!" people are more sympathetic and less solve-the-problem-y.

(Also sometimes it helps you contextualize and compartmentalize your own stress a bit if you frame it was "I am handling this shitty thing, but during the period of time it takes to handle it, I am still really stressed about it" because it makes it centers the solution and your competence/agency, and makes the stress a time-limited thing that won't last forever. I find my stress a lot easier to handle when I say "I am doing all the right things to fix this, it will just take time to come to a resolution, so naturally I'm stressed while it's hanging out there stressing me out!")
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:12 PM on March 25, 2019 [5 favorites]

Thanks again all. This has been helpful. (And a good example of solicited advice, ha!) I don't think I'm so un-self-aware as to constantly yammer away about my problems, but I can be even more careful in future. I'm very solution-oriented myself, but part of my reaching a solution is by processing things aloud, ie by talking about them, so I can be more careful who I choose to do that to.

But I think also that one of the people I was thinking about when I posted this question can be particularly unsympathetic and 'God I can't believe you don't just do this' (when 'this' is a thing I have previously considered and rejected for well-thought-out reasons), and avoiding talking about situations where she feels impelled to advise me will be better for our friendship in the long run. So thanks for helping me think things through.
posted by unicorn chaser at 4:01 AM on March 26, 2019

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