Beyond Advice: When a Friend Is in Need

Why you should resist giving advice.

Posted Jun 22, 2011

I recently shared a guest post on my personal blog, A Beautiful Ripple Effect, written by Dr. Ashley Solomon. This post resonated strongly with so many people that I knew I had to share the words with the readers of Psychology Today. Dr. Solomon's work is incredible — she is a therapist and writes a gem filled blog entitled Nourishing The Soul (perfect title, right!?). Be sure to check it out and get hooked like me, but before you do that, read the special guest post below that Dr. Solomon has penned. And as an aside, as someone who feels an internal pull to help anyone in need, the advice in this post is invaluable — do not skim, really truly absorb the post.

Beyond Advice
There’s no place where the urge to offer unsolicited advice pulls at you more than in group therapy. Laura is sitting there with tears welling up in her deep brown eyes, telling the group about how her beloved home is days away from going into foreclosure while her wealthy brother just bought his daughter another BMW (she wrecked the first one). The group starts shooting words of wisdom at Laura before she’s taken a much-needed breath.

Beyond Advice

I have this great attorney you can contact. You have to know your options!

How can that bastard brother of yours just let this happen!? You need to call him up and tell him that he owes you for all the help you gave him getting through graduate school.

It’s probably for the best. Let the house go and get yourself a nice little apartment, maybe something by the lake?

Not shabby advice, and the sentiments are certainly heartwarming. But as idea after idea gets tossed to Laura, she appears to be drowning further into the ocean depths rather than grabbing hold of the life rafts floating by.

Is something wrong with Laura that she’s not being buoyed by the support? Does she not care? Is the advice not on target? Are others not understanding the situation?

No, none of these are true. The fact is, in group therapy, like in life, often the best thing that you can do is to avoid giving advice. and here’s why…

The individual in need already knows what he or she needs to do.

Think about the last time that you were faced with a difficult situation. Imagine a moment during that period when you might have been feeling particularly hopeless, or sad, or whatever emotion you might have experienced. It’s unlikely that what you needed – or wanted – in that moment, was someone to provide you with a list of eight things to try to solve your problem. You had probably already come up with nine possible solutions in your own mind, but because of fear or other other emotions blocking you from action, you hadn’t tried them. Piling more advice on top of the growing mound of ideas would have just felt more overwhelming and confusing.

We need to feel heard and validated.

In that moment, what likely would have felt best was to feel connected – to feel not alone in your strife. We all want to feel a deep connection to other people, and sharing our burdens is one way that we do this. When others throw advice at us, it can feel invalidating, almost like, “Here! The solution is so simple!” Despite the person’s intent, we can hear that as, “I don’t know why you couldn’t come up with this. Your problem is really not that bad.” (My husband knows this message all too well by now, though he’s still often on the problem-solving train.)

So what do you do if someone you care about is sharing their struggles?

Share with the person the emotion you are feeling.

The truth is, it’s hard not to offer a piece of wisdom to someone who is suffering. One reason is that we like to draw on our own knowledge and experiences. It particularly makes us feel good when we recognize that we have lived through a similar situation and have the battle scars – and advice – to prove it.

We also struggle to sit with someone else’s pain. It can be excruciating to see someone we care about struggling with a problem. When a friend told me about her recent miscarriage, it took everything in me not to start asking questions, offering advice about what had been helpful to others I knew who had gone through this. But she knew about the support groups and the importance of journaling. What she needed in that moment was someone to hear her, to feel connected to her.

Instead, I said to her, “I’m not sure exactly how you are feeling – I could never know. But I am so incredibly sad as I hear you talk about this.” And that was all.

What I shared with my friend was my own emotional experience, and I allowed her to have hers. I didn’t pretend to know or even try to imagine how she was feeling – I probably couldn’t have if I tried. Instead I offered her a moment of authenticity (mine) and connection (ours).

Next time you are pulled to whip out your accountant’s phone number or explain how your friend should handle a fight with her partner, stop for a moment to check in with your own emotional reaction – and share it.

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Ashley Solomon, Psy.D is a psychologist who specializes in body image, eating disorders, and relationships. She blogs at Nourishing the Soul about our relationships with food and our bodies, recovery, and self-improvement  Connect with her on twitter and facebook.