Giving Advice

It is really cold in Minnesota right now. Don’t think I will venture out to greet the sun.

I was awake at 2 am and got up at 3 am. It is seven-ten and I feel like I should fix lunch. I am not sure why I have this tendency to wake in the middle of the night, but it happens pretty frequently. I will have a few longer sleeps before it happens again. But it will happen again.

When I awoke I was thinking about a woman I know whom I had intended to call yesterday and didn’t. It is someone who has problems in her life that I don’t know how to address. Helplessness is the feeling I frequently have when I get off the phone with her. I have thoughts about what she might do about her problem but when I have shared these, she never seems able to receive or apply my ideas.

Yesterday, I was with a group of friends and the topic of conversation was whether we should give advice to others. We’d read something that suggested that advice giving is never a good idea. It started with a quote from William Penn: “We are apt to be very pert at censuring others, where we will not endure advice ourselves.”

It was a complex issue. Each of us had a different idea of what it means to give advice. One person saw it as telling a person what to do and suggested that when we do that, then we have to take some of the blame if things don’t turn out well for them. Another saw giving advice as confrontational, pointing out to another person what we see as “wrong” with their behavior or attitude. There was some agreement that doing this can backfire, especially if a person is not ready to receive what we believe is true about them. Penn seemed to see advice as censuring, shaking the finger at someone, demeaning them.

One person suggested that it might be alright to give advice in a way that speaks from our own experience. If we have been in their situation in the past, we may share our experience of success or failure without actually telling them what they should do. We have to be careful, another suggested. She told of how she’d been asked by a person to give advice and felt that he was just trying to get out of taking responsibility. She ended up telling a story of how she had handled a similar situation and how that turned out. But she put it back on him, “You have to make this decision for yourself,” she’d told him. “You have to decide what is best for you.”

Another person shared that he has run into a situations in which he sees a person is on a path that is harmful. Is this judgment, he wondered, and does he not have an obligation to share his thoughts in order to protect or warn the person. He was saying what many of us felt, that giving advice seems like a good thing to do in certain situations. Even so, the suggestion was made, we should be careful to take ownership for our thoughts. We should say, “This is how I see it. My ideas might not fit your situation.” This seemed to leave space for the listener to consider an idea without feeling threatened. “This approach is also a sign of humility,” I said. “No matter how right we think we are, we are not God. We may only know a small portion of this person’s story and not know what their capacities are for change. We always have to accept the possibility that we could be wrong, too.”

Another approach that comes to mind right now as I write might be to help a person think about alternatives, maybe even make a list. This is often suggested as decision-making process and should include possible outcomes. This is not giving advice but is helping a person to think things through for themselves. The good thing is that they can have the good feeling of finding their own inner wisdom. Alternatives can be about actions to take but it can also be about examining one’s feelings or attitudes. “What are some reasons you might be feeling the way you do?” or “What are some reasons you might have done what you did?”

We didn’t come to any conclusions as the group discussed this issue of giving advice, just sharing of insights. We will each have to apply what we learned in our own encounters.