personal development

“What you should do is…” and other ways to offer a suggestion that annoys people


3 tips on the best way to share your advice

[Editor’s note: This is the sixth installment in Jennifer Abrams’ ‘Personal Development’ column for eSchool News. In her columns, Abrams focuses on leadership skills for anyone working in a school or district. Read more about the column here.]  

We’ve all been there. We know better. We want to help others just “get it.” Then we tell them what they should do. If they just tried this or did that, their problem would surely be fixed. It is a no-brainer for us, but it isn’t anything but annoying for others.

I think help is a great thing, but your idea of help may not be seen by those you are trying to assist as helpful at all. For more on this fantastic idea, read Edgar Schein’s books, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling and Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help.

In the meantime, while you are looking into Schein’s great works, here are a few tips on offering a suggestion in a way that might be heard and appreciated.

(Next page: Tips on giving suggestions people want to hear)

  1. Make sure that the suggestion is an honest-to-goodness suggestion. The intent of a suggestion is to offer something and then leave it there. If it doesn’t suit the tastes of the individual you are offering it to, so be it. If your suggestion isn’t taken up immediately as the next best step, that is okay. It was just a suggestion. Make sure the intent behind the suggestion is invitational, not demanding.”
  2. Offer it in such a way that the person doesn’t have to please you. “What I would do is….” “What has worked for me is…” “What we have done is…” are all egocentric in focus and tone. If the person chooses to not take you up on the idea, they might fear they are being dismissive of you, not just the idea. Better to say, “A way to think about this could be…” “Others have found that….” “In certain situations, it might be helpful to think about…” None of these phrases include you. The suggestion stands on its own and it isn’t directly connected to you. If they don’t take you up on the idea, at least they don’t feel guilty that they didn’t agree with you personally.
  3. If possible, ask if any of the suggestions fit their given situation. “Do any of these make sense given what’s happening?” “Any of these thoughts relate to what you are working on?” “What, if any, of these suggestions might align with what you are dealing with?” The intent in this language is to show that you are taking the person’s specific experience into account. Your ideas might or might not work right now for the other person’s dilemma. By expressing this understanding, the person is even more empowered to take none or any suggestions if they fit his or her situation. The language you have used honors that their specific situation might be similar and the next steps you offer might be helpful in that context, or not. You recognize that the person is in charge of their next step. And your suggestion is just a suggestion.

We want to be problem solvers and make things better for others as soon as we can. But in doing so, we aren’t giving the other person enough credit to sort things out on their own. Suggestions need to keep the other person in charge of their actions. To actually support someone it might be better to not “help” so much. Ah, the irony.

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