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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.

A few years back I walked away from the corporate world to get my Master’s in Persuasion and Social Change.  I loved it!  Getting that degree was one of the most challenging and satisfying things I have ever done.  I did it for a number of reasons, one of which was to change the way I think and therefore change the direction of my career.  But after I graduated I chickened out and took another VP Marketing job.  I told myself that since it was in a different industry than I had worked before, it was a different direction.  But ultimately  I wasn’t able to persuade myself that the job was the right thing for me no matter all the financial, practical and professional arguments I threw my way and I ended up leaving after 6 months.

I have spent decades persuading people and I am even more enamored with the process since I got my Master’s.  I love marketing because it is all about finding a way to resonate with and compel people to do something that you, and ultimately they, want to do.  So it was extremely frustrating to me when I recently faced my inability to persuade and convince myself to change careers.

I realize that I am not alone in this conundrum.  People face this a lot when making big decisions, like getting a new job or moving away, and small, like working out.  I have friends who are constantly telling me that they should be exercising, they want the benefits of it, they feel great while they are doing it, but they are just not able to convince themselves to get out there and start sweating.  Same thing when it comes to diets, the desire is there but they can’t close the deal.

More often than not, we blame these situations on outside forces; I’m too busy at work, I don’t have time to cook healthy, there isn’t anyone to work out with, or it’s too risky to quit my job.  But realistically what it comes down to is that we have not given ourselves a good enough reason to do it.  We can’t persuade ourselves to break our own routine, step out of our own comfort zone and make the change.

This inability is why best sellers lists are filled with self-help books; we are all looking for someone else to convince us of something we cannot convince ourselves of.  When deciding to go into business for myself, I investigated 7 highly effective habits, talked to my lizard brain, stared uncertainty in the face, searched for the tipping point and thought about growing rich.  Yet I didn’t finally decide to make the entrepreneurial jump until I stopped looking outside myself to find the push I needed.  Once I realized that the person I had to persuade was me, I was able to analyze and counter the arguments I had made for why I shouldn’t quit the corporate world and started to focus on why I should start my own thing.  This helped me to see that what was in my way was the financial risk of a start-up as well as feeling overwhelmed by the big picture.  Understanding that, I created a financial plan that left me with a necessary safety net and I broke the process down into its smaller and much less intimidating parts.  It was then that I heard the voice arguing that this would be quite an adventure and I have never been able to turn down a chance to go exploring.

It is so easy to come up with a lot of reasons why we can’t do something and a lot of people use that as the basis for their arguments.  But focusing on the negative is not effective when it comes to persuasion.  True persuasion happens when we finally understand why we want to or should do something, when we focus on the good and the benefits of the argument.   It rarely happens when we focus on the why nots.