On Giving Advice to Friends

Question: When is it acceptable to give personal advice to a friend?

I’m speaking specifically of a scenario in which Chris believes Michael is doing something that is negatively affecting either him or those around him. Chris’s goal in mentioning this thing is to get Michael to realize that it’s negative, to become aware of it, and then to hopefully stop the behavior and become more successful, happy, etc.

The problem here, is that the identification of this flaw that Chris thinks Michael has could be a very personal thing, and as such 1) could be hurtful to Michael, and 2) is largely considered rude to mention within American society.

Two Camps

Anecdotally, there seem to be two main camps here: one saying you should never try to change your friends, i.e. that you accept people for who they are and simply dissacociate with them if you don’t like them. The other group feels that if you care about somebody, and you feel they are doing themselves harm, then it’s your responsibility as a friend to offer assistance.

I strongly support the second position, and the rest of this essay will detail my reasons.

Main ideas

Here are my main observations about this topic.

  1. People don’t give their close friends important advice because it makes not just the receiver, but the person bringing it up, deeply uncomfortable

  2. Avoiding unpleasantness, at the expense of a friend’s happiness, is a sign of cowardice and a sure sign that either you’re not a good enough friend or the person you’re not giving the advice doesn’t mean enough to you

  3. The notion of politeness or courtesy or rudeness is a shroud for cowardice in this case

  4. If your friend can benefit from your advice, and they simply need the hear and process the information, then you’re doing a disservice by not giving it

  5. Where else is your friend going to hear this information? Most people aren’t analytical enough, or close enough to your friend, to notice what you notice. And among those who are, most are so PC that they’ll never say anything. The result is a friend continuing on a path that they wouldn’t if they had your advice

  6. There is a clear difference between not saying something and saying it far too much and too often. If you express your opinion, and it penetrates properly, then the receiving friend has the opportunity to make the change or not. Or perhaps they struggle with the effort. But at that point the concept of acceptance becomes real. You accept that they either considered and rejected your opinion, or that they accepted it and are trying to change. But if the change does not come, or come quickly, the friend who gave the advice should accept them for who they are at that time (depending on the issue, of course)

The difference between friends, associates, and strangers

It’s obvious that we should treat our friends differently than mere associates. And it’s also clear that we should treat people we know to some degree different than a random stranger on the subway. What’s not so clear is exactly what these differences should be.

I think one component of the difference is the willingness to be critical in order to attempt to approve someone. For strangers, you’d never do this. For associates you’d be reticent to do so, and for friends you should be willing to. The reason to me is that with a friend you are inexorably tied to their happiness. You want them to thrive. You want them to realize their potential. You don’t want them to limit themselves due to some sort of negative behavior that they could avoid if they were aware of it.

For this reason, I feel it’s not just fair game for a friend to give advice to a friend, but a responsibility. And no–this doesn’t mean that friends need to be rude to each other “in the name of friendship”, or someone gets to be rude and say, “Well, I’m your friend, so I had to make you feel bad.” First, I don’t see this even being something to worry about, as those who don’t care aren’t going to offer real, valuable advice in the first place. Secondly, there are limits to this advice.

Knowing when to return to acceptance

As I said, I strongly believe in giving the advice that will help the friend, even if they won’t want to hear it initially. Or, more likely, even if it’s considered rude to bring it up to most people, and they’ll simply be startled by you mentioning it.

This being said, the point is to raise awareness, to bring it to their attention–to simply ensure that they’re not blind to this thing that’s hurting or limiting their potential. The goal is to have a meaningful conversation around why you think this behavior or lack of behavior is damaging to them, and how they could be a far better person, or more happy, or whatever, if they were to listen to your advice.

Once you’ve had that conversation with the friend, and they acknowledge it, and they’re thankful, I feel it’s then time to return to the more standard “acceptance” state, whereby you accept your friend for who they are. You’ll likely see them struggling with the issue to some degree, failing, succeeding, etc. with the change you talked about, but I feel it’s not appropriate to bring it up constantly while they go through this.

In short, if the behavior is so bad that you cannot stand to not say something, then perhaps you shouldn’t hang out with the person. And if you got through with your message, and they’re trying to work on it, then it’s just being negative to constantly focus on how they’ve not yet achieved success.

The first point there is an interesting one. Many friendships dissolve simply because one side decides to distance themselves from the other. Chris didn’t want to hang with Michael anymore because he constantly put others down, or because he wasn’t ambitious enough, and instead of saying something to his most awesome friend he chose to be silent and look for other friends instead.

That’s reprehensible.

Chris cares about Michael. Chris loves Michael. If Chris can’t tell Michael something that could be a bit jarring at first, which he believes will greatly help his life, then he isn’t half the friend that he thinks he is. If he’s willing to put his own comfort, in other words, ahead of the friendship, then he is the one at fault.

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Conversely, if Michael doesn’t see that it’s difficult to say these things, and that only true friends would do so, then he’s missing the point of Chris’s advice. One thing should go through the mind of Michael as he’s hearing Chris’s point: “Why is he telling me this? What’s the goal? What’s the purpose?” The answer should be clear for all three–instantly. He’s doing it because he cares. And if those are NOT clear, then they aren’t as close friends as they thought they were.

How to decide whether to say something or not

Because I personally have had a bad experience with these sorts of interventions in the past, I now keep a few basic rules in mind before I look to help someone by identifying something I feel is harmful a friend.

  1. Are they evolving? People who have settled due to age or whatever are far less interested in hearing about their own weaknesses, because they’re not going to spend the time to fix them. As such, bringing them up isn’t positive, it’s negative. You should probably pass on doing this with these types.

  2. How much harm is it causing them, others, you? Are we talking about someone’s annoying laugh, or the fact that they drink too much, or the fact that they cheat on or hit their wife? The negative impact on them and those around them is one of the main factors in determining whether to say something.

  3. What are the chances it will harm your relationship long-term? You should probably also selfishly consider how likely this will ruin your relationship long-term. Again, if the relationship is good, and the friend knows you’re saying this to help them, this shouldn’t be a problem.

  4. How happy and stable are they at this point? Another thing to consider is their current mental state. Perhaps they’re not in a confident, happy place right now, and that while they normally would be able to take this as constructive they will only hear negativity because of their current condition. Consider waiting until they’re more solid if that’s the case.

Single takeaway

I believe we should change how we view these types of conversations between close friends to the following:

  • Friends help their friends. They say things that others will not–even if it will be uncomfortable. If a friend doesn’t tell them the important things, that might be difficult to say or hear, nobody will, and that’s why it’s up to friends to do so.

  • Change the narrative from “friends don’t criticize”, to “only friends have the courage to say the things that must be said.”

  • Understand that the narrative of “friends are polite to each other” is an absolute perversion of both politeness and friendship. It’s actually an insidious poison to the notion of intimacy, all in the the name of political correctness. It’s a permanent surrender of closeness to distance. It is the opposite of true connection.

  • Be willing to discuss difficult things with your friends, and don’t consider it to be unfriendly to do so. In fact, consider it the opposite. In all other cases, someone speaking negatively of you is for the purpose of causing you harm, and in this one case you can hear the same information with the goal of making you happier. Embrace that.

  • Don’t forget acceptance. Just because we’ve resolved to raise the difficult issues doesn’t mean we don’t love the flawed versions of ourselves that we all are. We’re all broken, and we should all be trying to improve, but it’s a slow process and 95% of friendship should be positivity. Don’t forget that.


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