People see a problem, they want to help, they want to offer their knowledge and experience.
This is lovely.
They have good intentions, but intent isn’t magic.
Some common failure modes:
- They don’t necessarily have all the context, so the advice is wrong
- They think the recipient hasn’t thought of what they’re proposing
- They’re creating work for the recipient, who now needs to engage with what’s been provided or seem rude and/or uncollaborative
If I’m hammering in a tent peg with a sledgehammer and you see me and tell me I’d be better off with something smaller like a mallet or claw hammer, then:
- I’m using a sledgehammer because it’s all I’ve got, there weren’t any other hammers around, and I want to get this pegged right now so I can move on to everything else
- I’d be using a smaller hammer if I had one
- I now need to choose between pausing to explain this all to you, or carrying on and ignoring you (with associated consequences; usually you thinking less of me)
If you see me and ask “Are you ok there?” or “Can I help?” then great! I can ask you if you’ve got a better hammer I can borrow. I can ask if you’ve got any better ideas because maybe I didn’t realise there are some no-hammer ground fixings around. I can say “It’s ok, I’m good” because maybe I am.
That doesn’t mean you should sit there and watch someone struggle in silence! But it’s important to remember that intent isn’t magic, the curse of knowledge is a thing, and you don’t know what they do/don’t know.
This is particularly hard if you’re a parent/mentor or similar. Balancing your responsibilities and personal concern with your charges’ need for space and independence for growth isn’t easy.
But I really can help!
I don’t want to say “don’t try to help”.
As with so many things, “where to draw the line” and “finding the right balance” are hard, and context is key. If they’re about to put a nail into a live wire, they’d almost certainly appreciate immediate loud advice to NOT DO THAT. Fortunately, a lot of situations aren’t imminently life-threatening.
“Do you know there’s a box of hammers behind the shed?” / “I’ve got a hammer in my car if you want?” are great – they offer to help without supposition, without assuming that you know best.
You may be an expert in The Thing, but chances are, the person Doing The Thing has more localised context and experience than you do. Trust that and trust them.
If nothing else, failure tends to be educational.
It gets worse
Check this Twitter thread for a painful example of unsolicited advice:
Ok so now that I am finally sitting down on a 3hr train ride, I wanted to address something that happened at our rad ladies panel on Friday— Lauren @ SDCC (@laurasaurusrex) July 24, 2016
I’m sure there was good intent behind that, but intent isn’t magic, and implicit biases are real and prevalent.
I’m a white dude in tech and I get enough unsolicited advice to find it frustrating. Others have it much worse.
You can be aware of the existence of implicit biases, you can be aware of your own implicit biases, and you can still fall prey to them.
You want to help, and that’s good of you.
Try asking yourself these three questions first:
- Do they actually need it?
- Are you actually helping?
- Do you appreciate that they probably have a pretty good idea of what they’re doing?