How to help a friend asking for advice

People and problems seem to go together. For example, someone you know may be having family, marital, or relationship problems. Perhaps a friend has lost a job and is struggling to make ends meet. Or an acquaintance may be trying to cope with physical or mental illness, pain, or loneliness. People with problems often ask friends for advice. Did you ever have someone ask you for advice and then ignore it? Worse yet, did a friend ask for your honest opinion and get angry when you gave it? At one time or another, most of us have had such an experience and become confused by it. What is the proper way to act when someone asks us for advice?

Before I answer that question, let me make an introductory comment by stating NEVER give advice when it isn’t asked for. For as John Gray wrote, “To offer a man unsolicited advice is to presume that he doesn’t know what to do, or that he can’t do it on his own.” So, when we give advice that wasn’t asked for, we are implying our friends are too stupid to know what to do, or that we are superior and know more than they do. If that’s the way someone treated you, wouldn’t you get angry? Since we should treat others as we would like them to treat us, it makes sense to never give advice that isn’t asked for.

But what do we do when a friend asks us for advice? I recommend the following steps:

1. Just listen. Allow your friend to get their problem off their chest.

2. After listening, do not offer advice, unless you are asked again.

3. Do not give YOUR advice, but help your friends tap into their own inner wisdom and rely on themselves. In other words, teach them how to fish, rather than feeding them a fish, for they need to develop permanent skills rather than get a temporary fix.

4. Once you have helped them, do not remain attached to the outcome. If they do not follow through and simply go back to their old ways, let it go. Trying to rescue them would just be offering unsolicited advice. But if they come back asking for advice again, repeat these four steps.

Do not worry if you don’t know how to carry out step number 3 because I will give an example. However, before I do, I will outline why we should not give OUR advice, but help our friends follow their own. Next, to complete our understanding of the big picture, I will outline why people ask for advice. After that I will give an example of step three in action. Finally, I will end with concluding remarks.


1. Each of us is different. What works for me may not work for my friend. We cannot know others as well as they know themselves. So, the ideal way to help others is to help them help themselves.

2. Often, the best way to learn is by making mistakes. Our advice may prevent a friend from gaining a valuable and unforgettable experience. More than 2,000 years ago, the Roman poet Horace wrote, “A good scare is worth more than good advice.” Similarly, the American journalist Gene Fowler (1890~1960) wrote, “I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.”

3. Wise men and women don’t need advice. Foolish people won’t follow it. So, why offer it?

4. If we cannot  master ourselves, what makes us think we can help others master themselves?

5. Our friend may find our advice offensive, which may damage or end our friendship.

6. We may give the wrong advice and harm our friend.

7. What better way to advise others than by our own good example? But if we are a poor example, it will cancel out the very best advice. And aren’t we all, at times, a poor example?

8. The advice we give may be something that we ourselves would not follow. Our friend would then see through our insincerity and dismiss our advice.

9. We may not be qualified to give advice on the subject troubling our friend.

10. There may be a conflict of interest. If I stand to gain by the actions I recommend my friends take, I should ask them to seek the help of someone else.

11. When we tell others what to do (give our advice), we are effectively saying that they are not good enough as they are. That is, they are unacceptable and must change. This is a form of rejection and is very painful.


1. In most cases, people asking for advice don’t want advice. They just want to talk about what’s troubling them. They want to vent or get it off their chest. Here is where friends can play an important role. Often, the greatest gift we can give to others is a willing ear.

2. They seek consolation. They want to be comforted. They want to know that someone cares.

3. They seek validation. That is, they have already made up their mind and want to be reassured by a friend agreeing with their decision.

4. To build intimacy. Sharing our fears, worries, and concerns brings us closer together. When we share our fears, our friends feel comfortable sharing theirs.

5. To receive approval. They want to know, from you, that despite their faults and weaknesses you accept them. This is an important role of friendship because by accepting them, you help them to accept themselves.

6. They don’t know anywhere else to turn. Because you are their last resource, your input is critical. But you don’t have to worry about what to say. Rather, you just need to help them make up their own mind.

7. Corroboration, confirmation, and clarification of facts. Sometimes a friend is distracted by muddled thinking. They realize that two heads are better than one, and are hoping that by discussing their issue with you everything will clear up in their mind.

8. Some people ask for advice to avoid responsibility. That is, if something goes wrong, they now have someone to blame. (“You gave me bad advice.”)

9. They are smart enough to realize that none of us are so stupid that we cannot help another, and none of us are so clever that we will never need the help of another. So, when they have a problem, they don’t hesitate to ask for advice. Let’s hope that you and I fall into this category, if not always, at least most of the time.

Now we are ready to learn how to help a friend asking for advice. To start off, let me sum up and rephrase what I said earlier.

Mainly, when asked for advice, never give your opinion. Rather, help your friends to arrive at their own conclusions. The first way you can do this is by following the example of Socrates, who forced his students to think for themselves by asking them a series of questions. This is an important principle. For when you TELL someone what to do, they resist. After all, no one likes to be told what to do. But when you ASK someone what steps they can take to resolve their problem, it forces them to seek a solution and offers them a plan they cannot argue with, for it is their own plan. The best way to learn the principle is to see it applied in practice. So, here is an example dialogue:

“Hi, Tom, how are you today?”

“Not very good.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m feeling quite depressed.”

“Would you like to talk about it?”

“My girlfriend left me. I feel devastated!”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Tell me what happened, if you don’t mind.”

“She was seeing someone else behind my back. She betrayed me. Now she left me for him.”

“When did this happen?”

“Two weeks ago.”

“Is there any chance for reconciliation?”

“I wish there were. I love her. But she says our relationship is over for good.”

“Is there anything that you can learn from this experience?”

“Yes. That you can’t trust women!”

“Did the same thing happen before with someone else?”

“No, this was my first serious relationship.”

“So, you were betrayed by only one woman?”

“Yes, so far.”

“This may sound like a silly question, but do you trust your mother and sisters?”

“Yes, of course I do.”

“What about the women you know at work; does any of them appear trustworthy?”

“Yes, but they’re all married.”

“It doesn’t matter if they’re married or not; I’m just trying to find out whether women can be trusted.”

“Well, some women can be trusted.”

“What about men. Would you say some of them cheat on their girlfriends?”

“Yes, I’m sure some of them do.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you’re saying that some men and women cheat, and some can be trusted.”

“Yes, I agree with that.”

“I see. Let me change the subject for a moment. We’ll get back to it soon, but are there any things you don’t like about your job?”

“Sure. I don’t like the overtime I have to do, and I don’t like the stress.”

“What do you like about your job?”

“I like the salary and the opportunity to grow.”

“Would you say that everything we experience in life, like your job, has good and bad points?”

“I guess so.”

“Then, tell me two good things about you and your girlfriend breaking up.”

“Good things?”


“Well, I suppose now that I have free time, I can take some adult education courses and better myself.”

“Tell me another good thing.”

“Well, it’s possible that I may meet someone who is better than my ex-girlfriend.”

“If that were to happen, how would you feel?”

“That would be exciting.”

“Are you getting excited about your future possibilities?”

“Yes, I am. But there’s a lot I have to do before I can find a better person.”

“Tell me what you would have to do…”

(At this point Tom is already planning what steps to take to solve his problem.)


1. At no time was Tom told what to do. He did not get any advice.

2. By being asked a series of questions, Tom was forced to think for himself.

3. Not only was Tom allowed to vent, but he was guided to find his own solution.

A second way of helping friends who seek advice is by asking them empowering questions. Empowering questions steer them toward a solution. Here is a brief example to show how it works:

“I understand your problem. Now, tell me, what are your options?
What can you do about it?”

(Friend gives three options.)

“Since the more options we have, the greater the likelihood that we will make a good decision, force yourself to come up with two more things you can do.”

(After thinking, friend comes up with two more options.)

“Of these five options, which would you say is the most workable?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, if someone were to remove all options but one, which one would you want to remain?”

(After some hesitancy, friend names an option.)

“If you were to take that option, would it help?”

“Yes, it probably would.”

“Which would you say would be more helpful, to take that option or to do nothing?”

“To take that option.”

“Well, it looks like you’ve found something you can do to improve your situation.”

“Yes, I think so.”

Now that we have seen there are powerful ways to ask questions to help our friends, what about using questions to help ourselves? For one way of doing so, visit:

If you are a counselor, therapist, psychiatrist, facilitator, or someone eager to learn much more about helping others help themselves through the power of questioning, I recommend “PowerDialogues: The Ultimate System for Personal Change” by Barry Neil Kaufman, Epic Century Pub, 2001.

For another article on giving advice, see:

Finally, I will conclude this article by asking George Bernard Shaw (1856~1950) to speak on my behalf: “I’m not a teacher: only a fellow-traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead — ahead of myself as well as you.”