I have a coworker who always asks my advice on navigating situations at work. Sometimes it’s about working with clients, sometimes about tricky relationships in the office, sometimes more general career stuff. She can be anxious about these things, and her requests for advice often require long discussions. I consider this coworker my friend, and I’m happy to help, but she never actually takes the advice I give! Then she comes back to complain about the outcome. And asks for even more advice. I don’t know why she’s even asking because she’s never going to listen. It’s not that I think my advice is always right—I don’t even know what I’m doing half the time, much less what anyone else should do—but seeing it ignored every time is annoying. Should I tell her to go ask someone else?
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Diane, I was with you until you said you don’t think your advice is always right. It is really annoying when people rely on you for advice but routinely ignore the substance. But it’s mostly annoying, to me anyway, because my advice is perfect in all situations and so anyone who ignores my advice is clearly harming themselves by choosing the wrong path.
I jest (sort of…), but I do think your unsureness speaks volumes. If you’re projecting a lack of confidence in your own advice when you talk to your colleague, she’s not going to take your thoughts particularly seriously. Are you saying to her “I don’t even know what I’m doing half the time, much less what anyone else should do”? Maybe you are undercutting yourself, so she questions what you’re saying simply because you’re questioning what you’re saying.
Of course, I do not recommend false bravado in advice-giving. It is a solemn responsibility, one assigned carefully only to trusted friends and random internet bozos. You should not act like you feel 100 percent secure about your answer on a sensitive topic when you don’t actually feel 100 percent secure.
So what to do? If you see a clear answer to her dilemma, say so clearly and persuasively. If you are on the fence, talk her through your thought process. She may even bring you questions that you feel totally unqualified to answer, and you can tell her that too! Suggesting other people to consult when applicable is indeed an important tool in the advice-giving toolkit, and one I encourage you to use. You say this coworker is a pal, so she should appreciate honesty about how confident you are in your own thoughts.
But there may be an even more fundamental disconnect going on here. Sometimes a coworker or friend who comes to you pleading What should I dooooooo? genuinely wants your answer to that question. But more often, in my experience, what they actually want is to just talk through the options with someone they trust. You seem to see your conversations being about coming to a concrete answer, but I think it’s possible that your coworker thinks of you as more of a sounding board than a guru.
When you’re doling out advice in a conversation instead of in a column on the internet, your best bet is to ask a lot of questions. Start with the hallmark of successful romantic partnerships: “Are you looking for a place to vent, or do you want advice?” Listen carefully to the answer—if she just wants validation that another coworker is being a jerk, your input on how to handle him is not going to be welcome.
Even if she tells you explicitly that she wants advice, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean your role is to play a human Ikea instruction booklet with numbered steps. We all say we want someone else to solve our problems for us, but we all realize that’s not actually doable. You might not be the only person she’s asking for advice, but even if you are, you’re not the most important voice on the issue—she is. So add to your questions ones that will guide her thinking: What are you most excited about? What are you scared might happen? What’s the best-case scenario, and the worst? What happened the last time you tried a similar approach? By the end of your conversation, she will likely have clarified her own thinking without you having to issue actual directives for whatever dilemma she’s facing.
If she hasn’t, feel free to issue your recommendations, but do it without getting your own ego too involved. Just because she chooses a different path doesn’t mean she doesn’t appreciate your thinking; she wouldn’t keep coming back to you if she didn’t. And if all else fails, tell her you’d love to help but you know a random internet bozo who’s always looking for more strangers’ problems to solve.
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