How to Give Advice and Communicate Better
Growing up, I was always the person my friends went to for relationship problems. They would tell me their problems, I would listen, and I would give my suggestions. And for some reason, all my friends say I’m really good at solving relationship problems.
Recently, this happened again, and I wanted to figure out why people think I give good advice. Upon reflection, I think it is because of three things:
1. I am extremely patient
2. I listen to understand, not to respond
3. I focus in on the root cause, which is usually intention or communication
When someone tells me they are going through a serious relationship problem, the first thing I do is make sure I have at least an hour or two of focused attention available. If I don’t, I will offer to set up a time to talk. This is so important because you cannot rush communication.
I find that people tend to have jumbled thoughts and very complex problems, and if you feel any time pressure, you will get impatient and jump to premature recommendations. Those recommendations will either be targeted at the wrong problem, or even worse, be good recommendations that fall on deaf ears because the person was not yet ready to hear them.
How long it takes to finish the conversation is not dependent on how good of an advice giver you are. It’s actually dependent on how good of a listener you are.
Listen to understand, not to respond
To give good advice, you should not listen to give advice. Ironic, isn’t it? Instead, you should listen to understand.
As I mentioned before, people with complex relationship problems have jumbled thoughts and emotions floating around in their head. They may come to you asking for advice, but what they really need is for someone to help to piece together the jigsaw puzzle in their head. I find that the best way to help them with this is to piece together the jigsaw puzzle in your head verbally, and have the other person validate what you say. This is what I mean by listening to understand.
In the conversation, I mainly speak for two reasons:
1. To confirm the facts and emotions (the puzzle pieces)
2. To ask for relevant details needed to complete the puzzle
For example, let’s say someone is telling me why he thinks his girlfriend is inconsiderate and starts explaining to me these stories about the inconsiderate things his girlfriend does.
Confirming facts and emotions might sound like, “So you told her you wanted to spend Friday night alone together, but she ignored you and made plans with other people. And that made you feel frustrated and like she doesn’t care about you.”
Asking for relevant details might sound like, “You said you bought a gift for her mom. Do her parents support your relationship with him or is that not an issue?”
The more you do this, the clearer the picture becomes for both you and the person with the problems. Eventually, I reach a point where I verbally state the whole picture in a concise manner. After this, the person hopefully says “Yes, exactly.” If not, then I get the person to correct the errors, and it’s back to piecing together the puzzle. After the person says “Yes, exactly” to my statement of the big picture, I then ask “Is there anything else you think I should know before I give you my thoughts?” If they say no, then they are finally ready to hear some advice.
Notice I said “they”. You probably thought you were ready to give advice 30 minutes ago. But if they don’t feel like you know everything they want you to know, they won’t trust your advice, even if it’s good advice. In that case, you’ve wasted potentially good advice on deaf ears. That’s why it’s so important to listen to understand. Only after the other person has confirmed that you know everything they want you to know, you can give advice.
Target the root cause when giving advice
I think the root cause of most relationship problems is either intention or communication.
I’ve gone into detail about the importance of intention in a previous post. In a relationship context, Intention is the foundation of your house. If you lack proper intentions, your relationship is doomed. For example, if someone is in a relationship because they feel “obligated” or because they “don’t want to hurt the other person by breaking up with them”, the relationship is probably not going to last. On the other hand, if a person had a fight with her partner because she felt it was an important issue to settle for the sake of their relationship, then there’s still a strong chance for the relationship to succeed because the intention is to benefit the relationship. In this case, communication is extremely important.
If intention is the foundation of your house, communication is the structural support. Good structural support is useless on weak foundation, so intention comes first. After you have proper intentions, then strong communication skills are needed.
Let’s continue the previous example. After the person says, “Yes, exactly” and “I think you know everything I want you to know,” I say “I think I’m ready to give my thoughts if you’re ready to hear them.” After they say yes, I start giving advice.
If I identified the problem as an intention problem, where the person’s deepest want is not the long-term happiness and sustainability of the relationship, I tell the person to decide what they want. I also tell them it’s not fair for your partner if you’re giving anything less than 100%, and it’s also not the best use of your time. People can sense intentions, so it’s extremely important that you are sincere in relationships.
If the problem is not intention, then it’s probably communication. It’s surprising how many times I hear something along the lines of, “I just want him to understand me. I don’t think it should be hard to understand me. What I want is reasonable isn’t it?” To which I reply, “It’s very hard to understand someone. Just look at how many questions I asked you before you finally said, ‘Yes, exactly.’”
After I say that, people realize that maybe their lack of communication skills contributed to the problem, and it’s not 100% the other person’s fault. I would then tell them what I would say if I was in their situation. That usually brings a resolution to their problems because they now have a renewed desire to communicate better with their partner.
How to communicate in sensitive situations
Communication is something people are often arrogant at. We unconsciously think we’re good at communication because we do it every day. But communicating in sensitive situations is an extremely hard skill. Saying the wrong thing is like knocking down the first domino in a series of dominoes, or even worse, like setting off a bomb.
There are five criteria to keep in mind for communicating in sensitive situations
1. The right level of directness
Note: If the person has proper intentions, I can probably skip the fourth and fifth criteria.
1. The right level of directness
People often have this assumption that their partner should be able to understand them, especially if they hinted something at their partner. They think, “if I received that message, I would understand what the person is trying to say.” To which I reply, “Everyone’s different. You have to figure how what communication style works for your partner, not what works for you.”
Let me give you an example to illustrate my point. Someone told me that he and his girlfriend would not see each other for many months, and he wanted to spend some alone time with his girlfriend. But his girlfriend kept inviting her family along even after he told her he wanted some alone time. I don’t know the exact words he said to her, but I told him, “If I were you, I would have said, ‘Hey, can we have some alone time before I can’t see you for a long time? Am I important enough for you to make some alone time for me?’”
Notice how direct and concise I was. After I told him this, he realized he could have communicated his wants better.
I find most people caution on the side of being less direct because they are scared that being too direct will result in seeming rude. But in actuality, being more direct makes it easier for the other person because they don’t need to try to guess at what you really want. That’s why I usually recommend people to be more direct that they think they need to be.
Even if you are direct, if the person is distracted, the message will land on deaf ears. Don’t talk about sensitive topics if the other person is not calm and not focused.
Don’t exaggerate. Don’t use words like “always” and “never”. State the facts and how the facts make you feel.
For example, you shouldn’t say, “You always prioritize other people and ignore my feelings.” Instead, you should say, “When you ignored my request to have alone time with you, I felt really sad and alone.”
Don’t just say, “you suck.” Say, “I will try to communicate more clearly next time, and I hope you will tell me if you don’t think you understand me.” Remember, you need to have the intention of long-term happiness for the relationship.
This may seem easy, but it’s actually harder than most people think. To be honest, you have to know what you want. That means you need to the self-reflection to figure out what you want. And self-reflection requires you to spend focused time and energy going through the jumbled thoughts in your head.
- What interpersonal problems have you had that were caused by either improper intentions or bad communication skills? If the problem occurred again, how would you approach it differently? If it’s a communication problem, what exactly would you say?
- When was the last time you gave relationship advice? If you had to do it again, how would you do it differently?