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I wish I had stuck with my idea of giving up chocolate for Lent; it would be a lot less challenging than my decision to give up giving advice.   While I’m not Catholic, I have always given up something for the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  Usually I pick simple bad habits like swearing, or unhealthy addictions like chocolate.  However, this year I focused on a personality trait that had gotten me into a bit of trouble lately.

Unsolicited advice

A few days before Ash Wednesday, my partner Tonya and I were discussing a potential opportunity for her to expand her business.  She expressed a concern about finding additional employees and I started to give her suggestions on how she could attract the right people.  She was not appreciative.  Thing was, Tonya just wanted to vent.  She hadn’t asked me for advice on what to do; she had some ideas for that already.  All she wanted was a forum to express her fears and her concerns.  She explained that, rather than being helpful, my suggestions made her feel like I didn’t trust her judgment.  I heard her frustration.  But I wasn’t suggesting these things because I didn’t believe in her.  I was doing it because I cared and wanted to help.  So, I didn’t stop and she got up and walked away.  Things then got even more heated when I continued to impart my wisdom when she returned.  It was clear we did not see my advice giving the same way.

This was not the first time Tonya had pointed out that I do this.  Over the years, she has mentioned it more times than should have been necessary.  Giving it up for six weeks seemed like a good opportunity for me to take a step back and look at my behavior a bit more objectively and possibly bring some peace to the household.  I didn’t realize how hard and humbling that commitment would be.  I knew I gave Tonya unsolicited advice, but until I tried to stop, I didn’t realize how much I actually gave it to a lot of other people.  And how negative it really can be.

Last weekend I broke my pledge and almost broke a friend’s spirit.  Sarah was at the house talking about how she was frustrated with the growth of her career.  It was hard for her to build a new clientele since she had moved but she was optimistic and had some ideas.  Forgetting to just encourage her and ask about her plans, I jumped in and gave her a laundry list of things she could do; mailings, promotions, advertising.  I pontificated, pronounced and proffered my opinion for an hour.  She thanked me but left appearing discouraged and down trodden.  When I asked her about it later, Sarah told me that my recommendations didn’t leave her any room to voice and develop her own thoughts or plans – ones she had been excited about and felt fit her personality better.

Then I watched someone else do it.  A few days ago Tonya and I were out to dinner with my Mom and stepfather.  Tonya’s business opportunity came up.  Being aware of the need to tailor my compulsion, I was extremely sensitive when my parents began to give Tonya their own unsolicited advice.  Rather than just listening and asking questions, they jumped in with their opinions on the right and wrong way for her to move forward.  It was a real wakeup call.  My parents were doing exactly what I do.  I knew it was coming from a place of love and concern, but the unasked for advice wasn’t helping; it did feel like they doubted her abilities.  It unintentionally put Tonya on the defensive.  I couldn’t pretend I didn’t see it.  Their advice had the opposite effect of what they meant it to do.

So I have decided to try to give up giving unsolicited advice permanently.  It’s definitely not going to be easy, I am having withdrawals already.  However, I take comfort in knowing that I can still give advice to those that ask for it.  Anyone??

 

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To the bum asking me if I could spare any change: Really, really? Why should I give you my money? How do I know you don’t make $60k a year begging? You get to set your own hours, you don’t sit behind a desk everyday staring at a computer screen, you don’t agonize over your taxes every April. How do I know you are not just going to drink it? Hell give me back my money, I’m going to drink it!

On my next resume cover letter: I am the best goddamn thing that is ever going to happen to you. If you hire me and get out of my way I can make you incredibly successful. So give me the job, let me set my own hours, pay me good money, tell me how great I am now and then and I will kick ass!!

To the woman at the grocery store: Being pretty does not actually take a lot of effort or money, you just have to care. And a smile makes every face beautiful.

On Facebook: Seriously, you just posted 6 things in one day; do you have an actual life? And re-posting someone else’s poem, saying, photo only proves to me that you have even less of a life because you borrowed it from someone else.

To the cashier at the lunch place: I think that what I want to order should be more important to you right now than telling your co-worker what you did last night. My buying something from you is why you have a job. You are here to make this experience meaningful and fun for me so that I want to come back again and again so then you will get a raise and save some money. Then you will be able to afford to do something other than watch TV while eating macaroni and cheese and tweeting comments about how lame the show was with all your friends for “like six hours.”

To the person reading their emails while they walk down the street: Did you know it was a beautiful day out, do you see how beautifully the sun reflects off the leaves of that tree? Wow, you have pretty eyes.

To my loved ones no longer here: I love you, see you tomorrow.

According to dictionary.com, an opinion is “a belief or judgment that falls short of absolute conviction, certainty, or positive knowledge; it is a conclusion that certain facts, ideas, etc., are probably true or likely to prove so.”

However, opinionated has a very different definition: “obstinate or conceited with regard to the merit of one’s own opinion; conceitedly dogmatic… asserting opinions in a doctrinaire or arrogant manner.”

Ultimately, whether or not you are viewed as expressing a valuable opinion or being opinionated comes down to delivery. The same statement, expressed differently, can establish you as knowledgeable or obnoxious. I sat in meeting not too long ago where a woman, a new employee to the company, was asked to offer her insights on a proposal from an outside service. This proposal was in the area of her expertise and it was well within the manager’s right to assume that the woman’s opinion would be very valuable. To her disadvantage, the new employee had not really had any time to review the proposal. However, rather than taking a step back and creating credibility with an objective analysis such as “I think we should look into the company’s methodology a bit further as I am not sure that they can achieve the results they are promising,” she took a hard stance and claimed “the company is totally bogus; they are full of it and could never achieve those results.”

Both statements ultimately carry the same message, but the first one would have provided her with a level of credibility that would have empowered her to establish the value of her opinion. The statement she made, however, left no room for a real evaluation of the proposal; she expected everyone in the room to just accept her statement carte blanche and eliminated any opportunity to demonstrate an educated expertise.

Now admittedly, this is a huge pet peeve of mine so I have an extremely low threshold for people who speak in generalities. But in this situation, I was not the only one who found it ineffective. It was clear the manager did not find her contribution very helpful as he suggested she take a bit more time to look at the proposal and get back to him with her specific concerns.

There is nothing wrong with having an opinion; most employees are hired for the way they think. Friends and family are respected for the advice and insights they bring to our lives. However, in our effort to make decisions quickly or to appear knowledgeable, we often resort to personal judgments expressed as facts; we resort to gross generalities delivered with conviction.

Using an opinionated statement works to shut down a conversation, making it extremely difficult to garner meaningful information. While the opinion expressed may be true, the way it is delivered does nothing to establish any level of factual knowledge. It can result in a perception of tyranny if you have the power over others in the conversation – reducing them to silent pawns, afraid or unmotivated to express a dissenting view. Or, if power is equal or reversed, the conversation can become confrontational or your contribution is discounted.

When offering or asked for your opinion, think twice about the way you put it forth. Respect that an opinion is not a fact or a proven statement, but is a reflection of your personal thoughts and ideas. Be aware that there is a fine line between your opinions establishing you as either informed or irritating.

There are some lessons we learn the hard way – like not touching a hot stove when you are a child.  There are some we accept without having to have it proven – such as not stepping out into traffic.  But then there are those lessons that we seem to never quite internalize.  One of the lessons I seem to continually need to learn over and over is when to keep my mouth shut.

I am a strong advocate for communications and the power of words.  I believe that in most jobs you are hired to have an opinion and speaking your mind, writing words, making presentations and being passionate about what you know is integral to your success.

I also believe that relationships and friendships are stronger when you share thoughts and feelings.  And, history has shown that conflicts and wars are not ended through silence but through negotiations and increased understanding.

So I operate from a place of always wanting to talk everything out.

And while for the most part this is a very effective philosophy, there are times when the best thing you can do is know when to stop talking.

I am pretty good at this when it comes to business. When trying to convince clients to take a direction different from the one they are personally connected to, I put forward an alternative and then retreat from the conversation. I have learned that it is important to give people time to mull over a different idea so they can find a way for it to mesh with their mindset. This results in their being more open to further discussion rather than being shut down immediately from pushing too soon.

However, I struggle much more with using silence and distance as a positive tool in personal relationships. Somehow, when it comes to my partner, family and friends, I often forget this concept and, instead of backing off, I say everything that is in my head right away – often making a situation worse than it would have been if I had just counted to 10 – or better yet – 7,200.

When my nine-year old nephew starts to throw a tantrum because the adults are all ignoring him, not taking the bait would be far more productive than my teasing him and getting kicked (literally) as a result.  Rather than staying out of it and letting him calm down on his own, I only goad him on into a  full-blown frenzy and quickly become the bad Aunt.

When having disagreements with my partner, I push to ‘clear the air’ when really it would be far more prudent to retreat to separate rooms. Rather than giving each other space to let the flames of anger and frustration die down, my push to keep talking only provides further fuel for the fire.

Sometimes putting a conversation on-hold is a far more effective tool for ensuring that what you want to say gets heard.  Letting people process information for themselves and giving them time to think can soften and remove some of the emotional quotient that stops people from being open to differing ideas or difficult conversations.  And, as I have once again been reminded, in the case of nine-year olds, silence is far less painful.

As the guru Shirdi Sai Baba said “Before you speak, ask yourself: is it kind, is it necessary, is it true,” and most importantly, “does it improve the silence?”

My step daughter was killed in an automobile accident when she was 21; I was in China on business when it happened.  I was supposed to have gone out to dinner with her the night before I left but I cancelled because I felt too pressured to get things done before the trip.  I wish I had said yes, I wish I had made her the priority and seen her that one last time.

A young woman I know was enlisting in the Navy.  One day her recruiter was driving her to an appointment and he started asking her really personal questions about her sex life.  When she didn’t respond, he proceeded to tell her in detail about the women he had slept with.  When he asked her if this was making her uncomfortable and if she was a prude, she didn’t really answer, just shrugged and made some awkward comment.  She wishes she had spoken up and told him that he was totally out of line.  It still bothers her years later that she didn’t.  She wonders how many other female recruits he treated like that.

A friend of mine had a boss that was really abusive; he was always putting down his employees and yelling at them in front of everyone.   He made it an incredibly difficult work environment and she was miserable.  Eventually she went out on medical leave and never returned to the job.  She wishes she had told her boss what she thought of him before she left.   By staying silent she didn’t get any closure and the thought of visiting friends at that office still gives her anxiety, not to mention the impact that unresolved relationship has had on subsequent bosses.

We all have things we wish we had said to someone –a proclamation of love that went unsaid or standing up for oneself in an awkward situation; times where, in hindsight, we would have said things differently.  In some cases, like my stepdaughter’s accident, there is no way to know that you are going to regret the lost opportunity and there is no chance to change that.  But, more often than not, we have another chance to speak up and say what we want.

It takes guts to confront someone but it can be done effectively by moving beyond the emotionality of the situation.  When someone says something that upsets us we have an immediate mind-body reaction.  Our blood gets pumping, our anger or embarrassment rises, we can feel it in our stomach and we want to lash out.  And in that case, it’s a good thing we don’t immediately say something as reacting from a place of emotion doesn’t usually have a positive outcome.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever speak up.

Avoiding conflict may be the right thing to do in the moment; however, as with my friend with the abusive boss, not ever addressing it can cost you dearly.  Don’t view waiting as a missed opportunity, and don’t let it be your excuse for never addressing it.  Taking the time necessary to calm down will allow you to formulate a rational response and alleviate a lot of future angst.  Sometimes it can just take a count to 10, a brief pause to calm your nerves and let your mind sort through your reaction so you can respond.  Other times, you may have to take a day or two to until you find a statement that feels right.  Addressing an issue later, when it is less volatile, can be far more productive for all parties.  Living your life saying “I wish I said that,” not so productive.