How to Spot Bad Advice

Even loved ones with the best intentions can dish out advice that leaves us feeling exasperated, misunderstood and confused.

I recently found myself agonizing over a financial decision. I had three options, and having spent considerable time researching them felt reasonably informed, but I was still not fully confident in which to choose. So when I later saw a financially savvy acquaintance at a party, I decided to ask for her advice.

As the conversation deepened, however, I felt my stomach tighten in frustration. While I’m sure my friend wanted to help, her advice was immediately off the mark. She didn’t ask me questions or consider how my goals might differ from hers. She simply told me what she would do, and I quickly found myself tuning out her monologue. The exchange left me feeling discouraged.

When we ask someone for advice, we look for a range of responses: a thoughtful and objective perspective, information to fill a knowledge gap, guidance from someone we trust. Done well, the exchange can benefit both parties, adding nuance to each person’s thinking and strengthening their bonds.

Bad advice, on the other hand, can harm relationships and make a tough decision even tougher. The worst advice-givers can invite second-guessing, undermine your values and lead you astray. Even the most well-intentioned bad advice can leave us feeling exasperated, misunderstood and even more confused. Luckily there are things we can all do to avoid giving—and receiving—bad advice.

Two women having conversation in coffee shopYulia Grigoryeva /

How to spot bad advice

Consider your “ask”

To help head off bad advice, get clear on your needs. Are you asking someone to help you think through options you might take to resolve a problem? Are you asking someone to provide advice as your friend or as an objective observer? Do you want help with something that’s closer to instruction or coaching—like how to plant a fall garden or ensure you get the next big promotion at work? Communicating both your problem and your expectations will help your advice-giver approach your questions thoughtfully and with a goal of their own in mind.

Next, make sure you’re intentional about whom you ask, and consider if you need a range of opinions or one well-informed perspective. Don’t be
afraid to get creative with whom you ask, and don’t assume you know everyone’s expertise. When you receive the advice, listen to your body. Are you tensing up or resisting? It could be a sign that the advice that’s coming your way isn’t right for you—or it could mean someone is challenging your own biases and assumptions. Take the time to check in with yourself on which it is.

Are they engaged?

David Eddie was an advice columnist for nearly two decades. In that time, he learned that good advice-givers ask questions that help them better understand where you’re coming from and what your goals are. They don’t assume they know the answer—or that you have the time, resources or ability to approach the challenge in the same way they would. “You want someone who’s going to drill down into the problem with you and take the time to understand the shape of it,” he says.

I wish my friend and I had talked more about my financial situation before she delivered her advice. She may have given different tips if we’d been able to walk through my goals and concerns, which options I was considering, and who else I had consulted. Don’t assume your advice-giver is being self-centred. It can take time to formulate smart, empathetic questions—and a run-in at a party, for example, may not be the best setting for true consideration.

Bad advice - two men having discussionfizkes /

Do they understand your values?

When it comes to human relationships, things can get murky. Our different backgrounds, beliefs and personal philosophies mean there often aren’t one-size-fits-all solutions. When advice-givers assume that what’s best for them is also what’s best for you, or that their advice should always guide you to what’s most socially or culturally acceptable, problems can arise.

Sahaj Kaur Kohli knows this firsthand. When she was 30, the New Yorker and first-generation American founded Brown Girl Therapy, an Instagram mental health community for children of immigrants that now has over 200,000 followers. But when Kohli decided to go back to school to become a clinical mental health counsellor, she was advised to delete her social media accounts and try to remove information about herself from the Internet. The advice-giver felt it might interfere with her new career. But Kohli disagreed.

“It felt like a rejection of what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. Kohli pinpointed generational and racial differences in how she and the other person thought about mental health and therapy. Whereas her advice-giver saw her social media presence as a career blocker, Kohli believed it was an important way for her to build a community. She saw no reason to hide her lived experience; in fact, it was an asset.

While Kohli ultimately ignored the advice, she wishes she’d asked herself if the other party understood her values before entertaining—and fretting over—their advice.

Trust yourself

Personally motivated advice is usually pretty easy to spot. A parent may encourage a certain university path because they believe it brings more prestige or financial independence. A friend may advise their secret crush to leave their current partner. It’s harder when people don’t recognize their own underlying biases.

That’s why Eddie often gathers a range of perspectives. He calls his group of advice-givers The Panel, and it’s made up of his wife, mom and some friends and colleagues. Their advice helps him see different sides of sticky issues—pushing him to consider different angles and outcomes. But in the end, he’s the one who makes the decision. “I believe in the saying, ‘Seek the advice of many, but follow your own counsel,’” he says.

In other words: trust your gut. Kohli subscribes to the same approach for herself and her clients. One of the biggest lessons she’s learned as a mental health professional, she says, is that everyone is an expert on their own life. She sees her role as asking questions to help a person get the perspective they need to make a choice—even if those around them may disagree with it. Now that’s good advice.

Now that you know how to spot bad advice, find out how to rebuild self-esteem after your confidence has been shaken.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada