How to Stop Giving Free Advice

Chatting Women sitting on a sofa with cupsDoes this sound familiar to you?

A well-meaning friend is struggling and asks for your help. She promises, “I’ll only need a few minutes of your time.” But you know what she really wants is free health advice.

I get this request a lot myself, however in my case, my friends want me to give them strategies to grow their businesses. In fact, that’s why I’m writing this article. Just last week a nutritionist friend of mine ended our personal conversation with “By the way? I really want to pick your brain on how to get more clients.”

I’m always flattered at first… and want to help. But after the euphoria fades, I feel more than a little peeved. After all, I make my living providing this service to others. Asking me to give away my intellectual property is no different than asking a friend who owns a clothing store to give you a free dress!

Here’s the deal… all this free advice you’re handing out? It harms more than helps.

Free Advice Yields Lousy Results

Your ability to heal people has tremendous value! In most societies, exchanging cash or other valuable asset for another valuable asset (product or service) is based on the rule of reciprocity and is foundational to how nearly all societies have evolved.

A person who commits money in exchange for your help is communicating that they are serious about you and your work. It strengthens their motivation to make changes and stay compliant with your recommendations. So not only does collecting a fee for your advice help you financially, it increases the chances of a successful engagement. 

Offering free health advice to friends typically delivers lousy results. They are not accountable for anything to anyone and have no vested interest in changing their behavior. Reciprocity is absent, the value exchange never takes place, you are out time, money, and energy and your friend doesn’t improve.

Unfortunately, once you start giving your services away, the harder it is to say no. This crumbling personal boundary steals not just from your wallet, but also from your self-esteem. You may think that what you’re doing is noble, but over time, the only race you are winning is the one toward frustration.

All those 15-minute sessions (which in reality last an hour) add up and it’s exhausting to give away energy and time in the absence of results, joy, or money. So let’s go through the fix for this.

My Method to (Gently) Say NO to Freebies

Do you find it tough to ask for cash from friends and family?

Here’s how I deal with this in my business.

When a friend asks me for a few marketing tips or to pick my brain on a direction for their practice, here’s my response:

Hey! I’m happy to help. Let’s set up a quick 15 minute chat to find out what’s going on and then I’ll let you know what I think it will take to get you back on track.

Four rules to adhere to with this approach:

  1. Avoid helping them right then and there! You want them to value your time. It also gives you breathing room to get out of a sticky situation and take control of the conversation when you do have your talk with them.
  1. Never offer solutions on that free 15-minute chat. That’s why it’s called a “quick chat” and not a consult. Control the call and remind them at the start that you only have 15 minutes and will direct the conversation in order to get to the meat of the issue. This gives you permission to gently interrupt and redirect them. Otherwise, they’ll spend 30 minutes reviewing their entire life story and you’ll get nowhere.
  1. Ask general questions like what they’ve tried thus far, what worked and what didn’t and how committed they are to resolving the problem. If they push for solutions, push back. You can’t help them yet anyway without a more thorough assessment (which is something they must pay for since it’s your intellectual property).
  1. Make this a phone call and not an in-person discussion. It’s tough to cut off a conversation in 15 minutes’ time when they’re sitting in front of you, teary-eyed and begging for help.

While on your call, the goal is to determine what you think it will take to help them. Then at the very end let them know in what ways you can work together to get the results they seek… along with the associated fees you will charge them.

If they say, “Geez, can’t you just give me a couple of quick tips now?” you can confidently let them know that, based on the conversation, there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than they realize and without a full assessment your suggestions may or may not help.

They might admit, “Well, I’m a little tight on money these days. I was hoping you could just help me out as a friend.” Some options I’ve heard from others are:

“I’m sorry to hear about your money issues. I do offer discounted sessions for low income individuals. Would you like to explore this with me?”

“I regularly donate 10 hours of my time each month to the local Women’s Shelter. All of my other work is fee-based. Sorry, I just don’t have time for more free support right now.”

“This is how I earn my living and it isn’t fair to me or to my family to give away my time and expertise. I’ve worked really hard to get here. I hope you understand.”

The Harsh Truth

I am still disappointed by friends who feel their relationship with me entitles them to freely access the knowledge and skill that I have spent years and money acquiring. I volunteer hours of my time and energy to organizations and individuals of my choosing, for causes I believe in, and have done so for over 30 years. That’s how I give back to my community.

For my friends, I offer friendship and that, I believe, is a lot… and all they should expect from me.

If you are frustrated by ongoing requests for free advice, it’s time to call it quits. Value your time so that others will, too. Put a premium on your expertise and charge what you’re worth to everyone who asks for help.

I know this is not an easy thing… it takes a lot of courage at first. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll find that it becomes quite natural.

And you will feel SO much better about yourself, too.

About The Author

Comments (26)

  • Dr. Michael L. Smith

    A great reminder and so well put, especially with neighbors and friends who have tried to “pick my brain”. Thanks for this well intentioned and well put article. It reinforces the idea that all of my training and hard work have a certain value that should be respected by myself and others as well.

    • Miriam

      Yes, Doc, if we don’t respect the value of our work, why would others do so?

  • Ashley Hathaway

    Wow. This is simply the BEST advise I’ve heard in a very long time! Brilliant. THANK YOU!

    • Miriam

      Thank YOU Ashley!

  • Victoria

    Good strategy for dealing with “facebook friends”. Real friends are few and far between to lose them over few hours or free work. Plus they may become best refferal source.

    • Miriam

      Good points, Victoria. And trust me, on occasion I will help my close pals with ideas. That said, practitioners have told me that they are getting hammered by associates, acquaintances, and casual friends and it’s a source of frustration for them. So the key here is differentiating between who those “real friends” are… and those who are not!

  • John Kim

    I agree…

  • Sean Kulyk

    Hi Miriam
    you are so right about this; I get it all the time.

    Like a lot of practitioners, I am passionate about helping people with their health problems, particularly where all other means have failed.

    indeed this enthusiasm is what has repeatedly ended up with me giving away free advice, and because I am thorough, is never ‘just a few minutes’! As you say, this advice is rarely fully followed, and never generates a testimonial !

    Having said that, occasionally I make my self available in a local health food store. for a ‘5 minute free consult’ where I talk about the complementary approach and how it largely differs from the symptom suppression of western medicine.
    I also discuss the need for a multi-factorial approach when treating ‘people’ with chronic conditions.

    Obviously I do this as means of raising my profile in the local area, and I feel fine with that.

    Of course I get people who want quick supplement advice, but I point out that most chronic problems are symptomatic of not only poor biochemical homeostasis, but are also indicators of a ‘life that is out of balance’.

    So I then point out that the answer is not just to carry on with an unsustainable lifestyle and just pop a few pills (either western or natural medicine), but to have a thorough analysis and ‘take stock’ of what has contributed to their current situation and what is needed to make positive change.

    I grant you that this resonates with the minority of people, but those are the ones who are most likely to come to a proper (paid) consultation, take the findings seriously and implement them fully – in other words they are the ones who will get the best results!

    So with friends I say,
    (i) “Have you seen your family doctor for a diagnosis?” If not, then I insist that they do this first, before considering any advice from me.
    Then if they have seen a doctor, I say that :

    (ii) I get great results by being thorough, and a few minutes advice is not being thorough, and your health is SO important, that I don’t want to get it wrong, and my insurer certainly won’t back me up, and you won’t thank me, if I have not done things properly because of rushing things! So please don’t take it badly that i am saying no”

    I then refer them to another practitioner who they won’t consider asking for a free consultation!

    Anyway, thanks for an excellent article. Also am reading your book; The Peace Process, which is full of excellent advice!

    Best wishes

    Sean Kulyk
    Homeopath, Registered Kinesiologist & Spinal Touch practitioner

    • Miriam

      Thanks for your great insights and add-ons to my post, Sean! Sounds like you have this pretty well figured out 🙂

  • Dr. P Heil-Mealey

    You are absolutely correct about giving free advice to friends. They do not respect the advice, and they are frustrated when they do not get the outcomes (because they short circuited the process) they wanted. They blame you, because YOU were soft-hearted…. never again….

    • Miriam

      Sounds like you’ve been stung by this one, too, Polly. A shame, of course, but I’m with you… never again.

  • Lydia

    Thank you for this post -it’s a timely reminder with actionable suggestions to boot!

    I need to remind myself of my boundaries often – will be printing this one out for sure!

    • Miriam

      Glad it’s helped, Lydia.

  • Frances Arnold

    Great article! I’ve found that colleagues – other HCPs – can be some of the worst offenders with this. I’ve received multiple requests for a call so they can pick my brain. They want to know how I’ve got the success that they want. They also get offended when I tell them I just haven’t got the time for the calls. I offer them some tips via email that are based on what they told me are their trouble areas. Many practitioners don’t even reply with “thank you for this”. I’ve had at least one HCP really give me a guilt trip that I declined her request for free time at my office. (My time in office is limited, my calendar is full, and patients are the priority.) One gal wanted to fly to my town to shadow me. In the same breath, she asked if she could also sleep on my couch. I genuinely want to help folks, but all of this comes at a cost. I politely told her that if I didn’t have time to visit my own family, I don’t have time to accommodate such requests. Thankfully, friends have been much more courteous and don’t expect free time from me. =0)

    • Miriam

      Oh BOY, Frances! You are spot on. There are plenty of resources for those who need help, but it certainly doesn’t have to come at a cost to us! I totally understand your point about peers seeking help, too. I’ve experienced it myself. Except the sleeping on the couch part :-). Thanks for your remarks – they do help.

  • Frances Arnold

    Also, I’m guessing that my summary of my experience may sound curt (which I just posted). I don’t like turning people down, and I do make time whenever I can. But I’ve learned the hard way to be firm. There are a lot of resources that we can point people toward to help them so that they don’t leave empty-handed after making a request for help. And one thing I’ve learned is that people seem to get better results when they pay for the advice they are seeking. I hope my remarks help the conversation. =0)

  • Wakely


    Great points! I’ve given away WAY too much in services this year and it gets to a point when it doesn’t feel good to give anymore-bitterness sets in because of the reasons you elucidated

    • Miriam

      I imagine being a new doc, it’s even harder to say no, Wakely. Say bye to bitterness!

  • Linda Fels NTP, CGP

    Thanks. Just the advice I need now. I seem to give more free advice than paid advice some weeks. Time for a reset.

    • Miriam

      Great to hear, Linda.

  • Peter Ingersoll

    Right on!

  • Mira Dessy

    This is so spot on. Thank you for so clearly stating the issues around why this is not a good idea as well as some very constructive responses to help get past that, “I was hoping you would just help because we are friends” guilt trip scenario. I absolutely agree that when we stand strong in who we are and what our skill set is we provide more value by operating out of a place of strength as well as focusing on not depleting ourselves because we evaluate ourselves. Thank you Miriam!

    • Miriam

      And thank YOU Mira! You’re right – if we can collectively stand strong on this issue, we can set a new standard of value for our industry and we will all reap the benefits.

  • Sherri

    This is great advise. So many times I have fallen into this situation and feel its a no win for both of us. I’m made to feel like charging for a simple question or two by a friend is greedy and bad and should be given freely.
    Your thoughts are much appreciated and I’m really going to ponder on how to put this into practice so that there are no hard feelings and I can stay in business.

  • Manning S

    Hi Miriam.

    Love this article. Wanted to share this story.

    I was working out somebody else’s office “renting” a room to use for my startup wellness practice. Most of my experience has been in the graphic and web design field so when I created some marketing collateral for myself, my office mate “offered” to negotiate a barter agreement with her landlord in lieu of paying rent. They needed a brochure done as well as other marketing items.

    Lessons learned. Never let someone “barter” on your behalf that doesn’t understand what you do and the work it takes. In the end the cash value amounts between what I would pay in rent and what the work on the brochure was valued at was greatly skewed.

    When addressed, I was promptly told the landlord had chosen another designer and my office mate refused to return my emails, calls or texts. Hence, I am out the time I spent and any income I would have received from the work. After this I made a decision that I would not barter with anyone.

    Somebody put it so aptly to me. A customer/patient/client is someone who compensates me for my work and allows me to make a profit. If they don’t I am not obliged to serve or do work for them.

    After this I put even more value on my intellectual property.

    – Manning

    • Miriam

      Wow, powerful lesson, Manning. As painful as these things can be, they are great teaching moments 🙂

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