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Some years after my decision to divorce, I thanked my parents for not pressuring me one way or the other on the “stay-or-go” issue. Making that hard decision myself really forced me to grow, I told them.

My dad replied, “We knew there would be pain whether you got divorced or didn’t. And we knew you had to choose that pain for yourself.”

That was the best advice I ever got—and it wasn’t exactly advice.

I think about this incident often, particularly when another adult asks me to give advice or when I’m nervy enough to butt in even without being asked. As fellow PT blogger Thomas Plante points out in a funny and insightful blog, giving advice can be fraught with peril. Some people react rebelliously and do the very thing you advised against. Others get defensive and attack you, leading to the bewildered reply, "I was only trying to help!” Still others ask for advice, but then tell you a million reasons why your suggestions won't work. Why the negative reactions? Plante points out that many people view advice as an infringement on their personal freedom or an attack on their competence.

Does that mean you should say nothing when a friend or relative faces a dilemma?

I don’t think so. While it’s dangerous to give advice, it’s also dangerous, and perhaps unkind, to say nothing or to back away from a friend’s need to talk about a painful situation. Your withdrawal could be interpreted as cold and distancing, or, worse, uncaring. Even if you end up feeling that you haven’t helped much, many friends feel grateful just because you've been willing to take the time to help grapple with their issues. That accomplishment will make you both feel better. That's the upside.

But before you dive in to help, there are at least 5 more difficult truths to consider:

  1. An adult has the right to make their own decisions about their life. Ultimately what they do is their choice. (For the purposes of this blog, I’m assuming the person is 25 or over—that is, with complete brain development and in possession of all their faculties—and that there is no risk to anyone’s life or limb involved.) 
  2. The other person has to live with the decisions they make. You don’t.
  3. You can never really know the totality of another person’s situation. What they tell you may be the tip of their personal iceberg.
  4. If you have a stake in the outcome of your friend’s action, maybe you can’t be unbiased. Like an honorable judge, recuse yourself from the case.
  5. You have likely made some bad decisions in your own life. If you remind yourself of this fact, it will keep you humble and avoid a superior, "I know best" stance.

Advice-Giving and Beyond

With one exception, the 9 tips below will enable you to help a friend without giving direct advice about action to be taken. The goal is to respect their right of self-determination and to strengthen their sense of self:

  1. Just be there. Listen. Your very presence can be a comfort to a friend. Sometimes keeping someone company while they go through their trials is a gift in itself.
  2. Empathize with the other person’s situation. Try, “You are in a tough situation"; Sounds like you’re between a rock and a hard place"; or "I’m so sorry you have to face this kind of problem right now.”
  3. Use the skill of tentativeness. “Tentative” means “not fully worked out, uncertain, or hesitant,” from the Latin, meaning “to try.” Instead of assuming an expert stance, take a tip from the Buddhists and offer observations with a “beginner’s mind.” For example, say, “I could be wrong, but it seems to me….”; “It sounds like…"; “Maybe you are feeling…”; “I’m not sure, but perhaps you worry that…”; or, “If you felt comfortable doing it, you could consider trying ….” When you use this skill, you communicate that you don’t have an easy solution all wrapped up in a bright red bow. If the problem were simple, your friend wouldn’t need you!
  4. Tell a story. Instead of giving direct advice, tell a brief story about what happened to you or someone else (without violating anyone’s confidentiality) that could shed light on your friend’s situation—“Do you want to hear what happened to me when I was in a similar situation?” As Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” But don’t make your story so long that you steal the spotlight from your friend.
  5. Expand your friend’s perspective. If your friend seems to be afflicted with tunnel vision, help them expand their perspective. You could say, “There could be another way to look at this. What about…?” You could also expand perspective by pointing out the consequences of their actions to their future self: “This may seem like a good idea at this moment, but how will you feel in a week? A month? A year?” And you can shrink an overstated problem with a saying like, "This too shall pass." If you dare, help them empathize with the other person in the conflict.
  6. Validate your friend’s feelings in the situation. If you honestly think your friend is right, say so: “You have every right to feel hurt (angry, suspicious, sad).” Once when I was describing an extremely difficult situation, a friend exclaimed to me, “But that’s not fair to you!” Her blunt comment dissolved my confusion, put some iron in my spine, and helped me be fairer to myself in the future.
  7. Ask, “What would make you feel best about yourself?” and other identity questions. Identity questions help your friend get in touch with the values that make them the person they are. Here are some others: “What is really important to you?"; “What kind of life do you want to lead?”; and, "What kind of person do you want to become?"
  8. Ask, “How can I help?” But be prepared to set boundaries if direct help would draw you too tightly into your friend’s knotty problem.
  9. If you feel compelled to give direct advice, do it. Some friends truly want and need to hear your opinion. Honest feedback, even when it may be hard to hear, can be just the tonic they need. Emphasize that your friend can take your advice or leave it. And perhaps you could add, "Of course I don't know all the details. You are the decider. And whatever you decide, you're still my friend!"

What might work with one friend might not work with another. Use your good judgment. Ideally, your advice will strengthen your friend and give them more confidence in their own judgment in the future. And if you feel like you are getting in too deep, remember that ultimately it's your friend's job to solve their own problems, not you. If you do feel overwhelmed, consider recommending professional help.

Sometimes I find my own advice—or non-advice—almost impossible to follow. In fact, right at this moment I can feel my halo slipping down my head. I have broken every one of these guidelines, just in the past year. But there’s a way to save the situation: If, like me, you ever find yourself blurting out advice and then regretting it, you could follow up with a comment like, “But of course the choice is up to you."

What about you? What advice has helped or hurt you? What works when you give advice?

Meg Selig is the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). Like her on Facebook here; follow on Twitter here.

If you liked this blog, you might enjoy:

  1. M. Selig, "Would you be willing to change if your identity were at stake?"
  2. T. Plante, "Giving people advice rarely works. This does."

(c) Meg Selig, 2014

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