wholepeace

Take My Advice. Stop Giving Advice.

In No Particular Path on March 2, 2016 at 8:48 am

A response by a friend to a post about advice reminded me of something I used to tell students in my communication classes: it is usually a bad idea to give people advice about their lives. Giving advice can go so wrong in so many ways and go right in only one.

Let’s start with the ways it can go wrong.

It is possible that you may give advice, the other person doesn’t take it and they’re right. It works out well. Suddenly, your advice seems less valuable. Perhaps you experience this as a personal loss of value in the relationship. Do you resent the fact that they didn’t listen to you? Why did they ask your advice at all if they already knew better? Perhaps you feel a little foolish as well as disregarded. What if this isn’t the first time you’ve given advice they haven’t taken and their choice worked out well? Are they trying to make you feel foolish? And what about the other side of it? Perhaps the other person is feeling somewhat superior now; perhaps they’re a little smug that they didn’t take your advice, that it is clear now that they knew better all along.

Or perhaps you gave lousy advice, the other person took the advice and it turned out badly. Now it’s your fault. Having already given you at least a share of the responsibility for their decision, they may now be perfectly willing to give you all of it. “You told me to do that!” they’re angry because the results weren’t what they needed or wanted; and they are angry at you, and resentful, because you own the advice.

Maybe the advice was good advice, but they didn’t take it and the result was terrible. Guess what? It’s still your fault. “Why didn’t you make me do what you told me to?” “You didn’t tell me it would be this bad!” Now you’re not only clearly smarter than they are, you didn’t work hard enough to make them see that. They feel foolish for not taking the advice and they feel inferior because you were right and they were wrong. And how do you feel? Can you resist the temptation to remind them that you gave them good advice that they didn’t take? Do you feel a bit superior and ego-vindicated because they didn’t listen and screwed up?

Let’s imagine, however, that you give the other person some really good advice; they take it; and everything works out wonderfully. But afterwards there seems to be a change in the relationship, subtle at first, but unmistakable. They keep saying how grateful they are, but they also seem somehow resentful. Perhaps they are feeling somewhat in your debt and don’t, really don’t, know how they can repay you. Gifts of all kinds – including the gift of advice – can create an imbalance in a relationship where one of the parties cannot give or has not given equally. There is a sense of sudden inferiority that can come with the sense that the other person was smarter or cleverer or better able to say how to act in your life than you were. Debts and obligations of all kinds can leave us feeling diminished, resentful and in conflict. Are these rational behaviors? Perhaps not. But humans don’t always act rationally. And by the way, the advice giver may also feel uncomfortable with the situation. Other people’s gratitude is nice at first, but can become a burden of its own. Any imbalance in a relationship, even a well-intentioned one, any change, even a good one, can cause stress.

But what about the one thing that can go right? You and the other person might have a strong, close relationship built on years of trust, understanding, perhaps love, and a clear sense of boundaries and personal responsibility. You give the advice and then let it go. You want nothing and expect nothing. The other person either follows it or not, but in either case, however it turns out, you walk away with the relationship intact, supporting each other. If you have this kind of relationship with someone, and if you are the kind of person who can genuinely give without expectation or obligation, then you may successfully give occasional advice.

But this is not the norm. In most cases, giving advice is a risk; one that we are often either oblivious to or in denial about. But there is another way to go. If someone asks for advice, ask them what they have already considered. Really listen. Get them to talk about the problem and the strategies they’ve already thought about. Encourage them to think it through, support them in reaching their own decision. If you think of other possibilities, put them in the form of questions: “Have you considered . . .?” “Is it possible that you might . . .?” Add to their options without advocacy, but help them see the possibilities and risks of all the choices. It is still possible that they might make a decision and blame you for it: “I would never have thought to do that if you hadn’t brought it up!” But the risks for you are less than with straight out advice-giving.

Human beings are unpredictable, contradictory, and emotional. Murphy’s Law (If something can go wrong, it will.) is about us, not about some outside force in the universe that we have no influence over. Remember that and give advice sparingly and with great care.

Or not.

It’s just a suggestion.

It’s your decision.

Really. Do what you want.

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