I was recently at lunch with a group of friends when one of them mentioned that her struggle to balance work and family was leaving her unhappy and grumpy. Specifically, she realized she had started taking her frustration out on her husband and children.
At this point in the conversation, it seemed clear that she needed some advice on how to better reduce stress and find balance. Because I’m a psychotherapist and relationship expert, I chimed in. As I began to make some suggestions, she brushed me off in an insulted tone and told me that the way she was handling the situation (being chronically grouchy to her family) was just fine. That moment was very awkward, as we all got quiet at the table. After lunch, a few of us exchanged a flurry of text messages, trying to figure out what had happened.
Sometimes we want to give our friends good advice, but deciding whether or not to offer it and how far to push it is a challenge. We do not want to offend our friends by telling them what they are doing wrong in a situation, yet we do not want to sit by and watch them make a mistake that could be harmful to themselves or others.
How does one determine whether or not to offer advice? In my opinion, there are a few factors that need to be weighed: How close is your relationship with that person? How much damage will be done if you do not try to step in? How open is the person to receiving advice? It is also important to keep in mind that adults are entitled to make their own decisions and that sometimes we will not agree with those decisions.
If you are in a sticky advice-giving situation, try following the plan suggested by a researcher named Bo Feng at UC Davis. Feng conducted a study in which he determined that Americans, as a culture, are in need of support and reassurance if they are to successfully receive advice. Specifically, he found that those of us who want to give advice need to 1) show emotional support to the recipient, and 2) provide justification for the advice. He found this to be particularly true if the advice was not asked for by the recipient.
Rethinking the situation
If I were to follow his method, here's how I would have handled the situation differently with my friend at lunch: I would make a plan to talk to her privately and let her know how much I care for her and her family, and that I realize how difficult it is to juggle work and home life (this is the emotional support part).
I would then let her know that I had been thinking about our conversation at lunch and realized that, even though she felt like her husband and kids could handle her treating them in a less than kind way, it is not healthy for any of them. I would let her know that she would be better off relieving her stress by taking a walk, giving back to others, joining a gym or engaging in a favorite hobby. Her family would be more supportive and understanding of her if she did not take her problems out on them (this is the justification part). I would then hope that my advice would make a positive impact.
If she were still not open to my suggestions, I would default to the following list of suggestions:
1. Offer support
Let her know that, if at any time she wants my support, advice or help in anyway, I will be there.
2. Be empathetic
Let her know that I understand how she is feeling and do my best to relate to her emotional experience. (Sometimes people will realize that they need to change how they are thinking if someone is there in a supportive way.)
Sometimes if you share a similar experience, that person is more likely to hear what she is doing incorrectly.
4. Try not to run an agenda
Keep in mind that this is her life, not mine. What might be right for me may not be right for her.
5. Stay connected
She is still my friend, and I will continue to be there for her.
If none of these strategies work, there are times when you simply need to walk away. Not everyone is open to our advice, no matter how expert or helpful it may be.
Stacy Kaiser is a licensed psychotherapist, author, relationship expert and media personality. She is also the author of the best-selling book, How to Be a Grown Up: The Ten Secret Skills Everyone Needs to Know, and an editor-at-large for Live Happy. Stacy is a frequent guest on television programs such as Today and Good Morning America.