Ashera is a Marriage and Family Therapist with an extensive background in sexual health education. You can ask her stuff anonymously and she won’t get weirded out. Seriously, try her. Send your queries through our anonymous contact form here.
I feel like I cycle through friends. Over the past decade, I’ve had this boom-bust pattern with a few groups of people, all of which seem to keep me at arm’s length now. Each one of them was making really stupid decisions—dropping out of school, getting involved with stage-five clingers, or just not handling their business. I tried to give them advice and they wouldn’t take it and cut me out. Then, months later, they actually do what I told them to do and everything’s fine in their lives, but they’re still mad at me. I’ve heard some of them call me manipulative or judgmental, but I was really just trying to get them to snap out of it. How do I get people to listen to my advice when I’m just trying to help? How do you get people to listen?
I know this is set up much like “an advice column,” but I have a curveball for you: I don’t give advice. A good therapist generally won’t, as people don’t take advice and that’s also not my job. It’s my task to empower people to identify their goals and then make choices that help them to work towards the life they want to live. There will be hiccups along the way, because life is messy. I may be a “relationship expert,” but I am not an expert on an individual’s experience, and I don’t live with the consequences of their decisions.
I hate to break this to you, but you’re not an expert either, and your need for control is becoming toxic. Are you asking, “How can I help better?,” or are you asking, “How can I get people to do what I want?” — because those are two wildly different conversations.
Burned bridges are the aftermath of violated boundaries. Giving strict advice that you assume will be followed post haste assumes a distinct power dynamic. You’re saying, “I know better than you do,” which people tend to respond negatively to. Involving others to enhance a chorus of “you should follow this course of action” is completely isolating for whoever is on the receiving end. They will feel their privacy is violated and likely never trust you again. You can keep doling advice out left and right if you like (again, I don’t give advice), but you will likely end up in the same cycle. If you would like different results, you must modify your pattern.
The impulse to give undue advice is a hard one to break, but it can be done. The first step in making a change is to get very real with yourself. What motivation is driving your advice? If your reasoning is self-serving (example: you should dump your girlfriend because I don’t get to hang out with you as much), you’re not really being a good friend. If you have concerns (example: you have like, two weeks left in this semester and you’ll be throwing away a lot of opportunities and I’m scared for you), you need to open the conversation under the premise of care.
To be a supportive friend is to understand that we’re all on different paths and we can’t grow unless we go through some gnarly self-imposed bullshit sometimes. As always, there are conditions to this. You are entitled to your boundaries, and if a friend’s significant other makes you uncomfortable, don’t hang with them. If a friend is spiraling into risky behavior, it’s okay to say, “Hey, bud, you’re freaking me out.” Remember, people don’t like to be reprimanded and told “you’re wrong.” A handy trick is to appeal to the narrative they have for themselves—their preferred self.
It’s fairly easy to align yourself with someone’s preferred self if you approach the topic carefully. I’ll use a hypothetical (yet common) situation to illustrate the general premise: a teenage girl and her mother are constantly bickering. The daughter acts out in various ways—sneaking out, not doing her homework, etc. Her mother tries to crack the whip and give her daughter “tough love,” but her daughter gets worse and worse until they land in my office.
I can’t look at these people and say, “You’re both being obnoxious, stop it.” They’ll shut down, stomp out, and leave me a nasty Google review. More importantly, the situation will likely get worse.
I always look for the pattern and identify the values they’re operating under. I can see that the mother’s punishment techniques are not doing anything to remedy the situation and are likely making it worse. But she’s panicking and she doesn’t know what to do! Developmentally, her teenager is likely asking for freedom, not receiving it, and lashing out. I can’t point this out directly to the mother, who will only hear, “You’re being a bad mom,” feel judged, and probably lose her cool at me. This is where I align with the mother’s preferred view of self. I say something like:
“You’re a really great mother and it’s clear to me how much you care for your daughter. Daughter, are you getting that message?”
Daughter responds with, “No, it feels like she doesn’t like me and that I’ll never get anything right and so I just quit trying. She’ll never trust me and I feel hopeless.”
“Mom, did you know that your daughter wasn’t hearing that you love her, but instead she’s feeling like you don’t like her and she’s a failure to you?”
This opens up space for the mother to realize the effects of her panicked action. The important part is that they’re both listening to one another. At this point, we can begin renegotiating what trusting boundaries look like so the daughter feels loved, valued, and understood, and the mother doesn’t feel like she’s rewarding bad behavior. If they’re both empowered to come to the table and determine the expectations and limits, they can work towards living in a peaceful home. This won’t be a one and done conversation—they’ll need tune-ups along the way, but the task of mutual understanding has been accomplished.
You can incorporate this principle fairly seamlessly into your own life, and your friendships will undoubtedly benefit. Remember that you only have control over your own actions and it’s a waste of energy to try to control others. We’re all going to make mistakes along the way. Give a little grace, and love your friends wholly for who they are—messes included. After all, the reward of patience is patience.