A friend was buying cigarettes and a stranger said, “The surgeon general said smoking can be hazardous to your health.” My friend responded, “Did they also tell you that #$!@ing with me can be hazardous to your health?” The stranger opted to move to another line.
When my friend told me about this encounter I laughed and then asked, “Why the heated response since you don’t smoke?” and she said, “Because it wasn’t any of their business!” Now I don’t know if the stranger’s advice was sincere or sardonic, but I do know that giving advice, solicited or unsolicited, can be hazardous.
Whether you are the giver or receiver of advice, timing appears to be more critical than the truth; this is the principle behind the quote, “The truth out of season bears no fruit.” Unfortunately, most of us didn’t get the memo about how to tell advice time. I remember the first time I had to fly, I asked my cousin, an experienced flyer, for advice. He said, “Get a window seat because if it’s your time to go, at least you will see it coming.” His advice wasn’t elegant or comforting, but I took it—and thousands of flown miles later, I still remember it as the ugly truth.
Over the years, I have realized that many people can’t handle the truth even when they ask for it. I have had friends, coworkers, family and some strangers ask for advice, prefacing the request with, “I want you to tell me the honest truth.” And I foolishly thought they meant it:
- A coworker told me she was written up for spending too much time on her personal business and for doing an overall inadequate job. She asked me for honest feedback. I proceeded to provide examples of my interactions with her, which unfortunately supported her manager’s review. I also said that she had one of the most patient managers around, because I would have written her up six months ago. Maybe I shouldn’t have added the last part, because she walked out and never spoke to me again.
- A friend was complaining about her boyfriend of five years, saying he was unmotivated and aimless. When she asked for my “honest” opinion, I said, “fixing him doesn’t fix you.” You don’t have any anchors (marriage, children, or mortgage) with him, but you still continue the relationship—even though you’re always talking about him like he’s an uninvited guest in your life. The question isn’t “what is wrong with him?” but “what is wrong with you?” She left the conversation with a few curse words for me and didn’t speak to me for two years.
I’ve learned professionally and personally that even if you are invited to give your opinion, you shouldn’t accept every invitation. The simple truth is that people aren’t always honest about looking for honesty. In some cases, they are looking for you to co-sign their views instead of presenting a different one.
To reduce hazards in this game of advice, I try to follow two rules: Don’t go where you aren’t invited, and make every effort to understand the invitation. By understanding the invitation, you can weigh your RSVP options: whether to turn it down (pretty lie), come as you are (ugly truth), or dress for the occasion (sugarcoat it). Most importantly, if you do accept, you cannot overstay your welcome. Get in and get out. Then let nature take its course, because life will either beat you or teach you through your journey to maturity.
Over the years I have offered my cousin’s flying advice to nervous flyers. The same advice that I took in stride inspires a spectrum of reactions from others, from outrage to laughter. Not everyone respects the “ugly truth,” despite the saying that the truth will set you free—because some people just like being tied up.
Complete honesty can derail a conversation or relationship faster than an oil spill on wet pavement. Tread lightly when you are asked for advice, because sometimes you need to leave people in the ditch until they are ready to be set free.