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:
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:
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?
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(c) Meg Selig, 2014