02/21/2012 07:10 am ET Updated Apr 22, 2012

Giving Advice: You Should Never Say "You Should"

A therapist friend of mine once said that advice is the lowest form of conversation. I totally agree with him but would go even further in warning that giving unsolicited advice is a sure way to erode trust and drive people away.

Trust is the single most important ingredient of any relationship -- "Where there's no trust, there's no love," according to my mentor. To be able to speak from your heart and share your truth with someone, you must feel safe enough to know that he or she will acknowledge what you shared and offer emotional support but no advice or judgment. A true friend knows that, if you want advice, you'll ask for it, and doesn't try to fix you or your situation.

If you do want advice, though, be sure that the person offering it has experienced your issue and is willing to share what worked and what didn't from an emotional perspective. That kind of advice isn't gratuitous, and it can be very helpful. It's best received if presented in statements beginning with, "When I was in that same situation . . ." and not, "You should . . . ."

This situation often comes up between parents and their adult children. When an adult child feels he can't trust a parent to hear him without giving unsolicited advice, conversations can slow to a trickle. Not only doesn't a parent necessarily know what's best for his child, but not allowing the child to struggle with his own issues and make his own mistakes doesn't allow the child to define who he is and develop strength of character. Treating adult children as if they don't know what's best for them is like having a severe case of myopia.

My adult son is in his 40s and when he shares his issues with me, I've learned to listen and ask if he wants my feedback before offering any. Before I followed this simple rule, I noticed that the more advice I heaped on him, the less he talked about his personal life. Our conversations now are mostly about him, and when he asks what's going on with me, I try to be brief and to the point. I owe him my interest and concern -- not the other way around. It's his life, after all, and he has to make his own decisions and live with the consequences.

By midlife, most men and women have figured out that sharing experiences on an emotional level about life's important issues -- friendship, dating, marriage, divorce, parenting, unemployment and death, for example -- has value because it comes from their hearts. If they haven't personally experienced what someone else is going through, they're respectful and supportive enough to just listen.

Everybody's known blowholes who can't resist fixing everyone else's problem, even if they never experienced it. Frequently their lives are a train wreck, so they don't have anything worthwhile to offer you, but just seem to love the sound of their own voices. I've stopped sharing my issues with these self-appointed "experts," and I urge folks stuck in this mode to reconsider their behavior and stop saying, "You should . . ." If you do, people will notice and perhaps begin sharing their lives with you again.