It’s Not The Words But The Thought That Counts

An attitude that often leaves misery and mayhem in its wake.

Posted Jun 13, 2020

The words “I know what’s best for you” are dangerously destructive to the creation of harmonious partnerships, groups, communities, nations, and planets. Sound harsh? Let me explain why. The reason these words are so ruinous is that many people believe them. Why is that a problem? Because it’s never, ever, ever true. 

Let’s have a look at what would have to happen to make the statement “I know what’s best for you” true. Firstly we’d have to know what “best” means for the other person. That would require knowing what the person’s goals and ambitions are. All of them. 

That seems simple enough. They could just tell you what they want. The problem with that approach is that all you know when someone tells you what’s best for them is what they’ve told you is best for them. You don’t know what is actually best for them. “told you” and “actually” might be exactly the same and, then again, they might not. And you’ll never know. The person could, I suppose, tell you how close “told you” and “actually” are for them, but then that’s more telling, so we’re right back to the original “told you” dilemma. 

The other tricky part of telling another person what you really want, or what is really in your best interests is that, sometimes, you don’t even know! Have you ever had the experience of really, really wanting something so much that’s it’s all you can think of? But then, when it's actually yours, you have a sense of “Oh! Is that it?” Talking about or anticipating something can be very different from the experience of something when you actually do it or get it. 

95510792, @123RF
Source: Riccardo Lennart Niels Mayer, Image ID:95510792, @123RF

Not only can there be a difference between “told you” and “actually,” but there can also be a difference between “imagining” and “actually.” This is the difference between imagining that you’re standing outside in a torrential thunderstorm and actually standing outside in a torrential thunderstorm. Or imagining you’re taking a spoonful of that slice of double chocolate-espresso truffle pie in front of you and actually smothering your taste buds in the indulgence. Or imagining that the panel interviewing you for the executive manager’s position are sitting in their underwear, and actually being interviewed by recruitment specialists dressed only in their underwear. 

You get the idea. The way we imagine things to be can be different from the way they eventually occur. That idea of “be careful what you wish for” really does have something going for it. 

And even if you could know someone’s very private hopes and ambitions, knowing just one or two or even a handful of them won’t cut it. Perhaps you’re completely correct in terms of knowing what is best for them as far as their career goes. They might also have, however, goals about family relationships and personal growth and development. While you’re busily organizing for them to have the career of their dreams, you might have turned their family and personal life into a nightmare. 

Despite the impossibility of ever genuinely knowing what is best for another person from their perspective, we nevertheless often believe that we do. And that’s where the real trouble comes in. If we entertained only ourselves with fanciful ideas about knowing the ideal way for another person to live their life, that would probably be harmless enough. But it never stops there because we never think our ideas are fanciful. We do a great job of convincing ourselves of our own omnipotence, and then, we set about trying to persuade the other person as well. We offer all manner of advice and suggestions and directives. Then, we become anything from perplexed and puzzled to irritated and even enraged when the other person doesn’t take up our perfectly timed, precisely aimed, and expertly crafted advice. 

Possibly, even at this point, we would have nothing more than a little speed bump in our relationship. But we don’t stop there, do we? When our well-intentioned advice is rebuffed, our first response is seldom to shrug and think, “Well, I missed the mark with that one. I should be a little less sure of myself next time.” So impressed are we of our own dominion that we employ different strategies, tactics, and maneuvers to compel the other person to see the sense we are presenting to them. 

To nullify our effects, the other person might tacitly agree, and then get back to doing whatever it was they were doing before we imposed our tutorial-in-living on them. They might also seek to minimize contact with us in the future. Or they could respond somewhat more emphatically than with a simple withdrawal and let us know exactly what they think of our tips. Perhaps they might even offer us some advice of their own. 

Whatever course they take, none of the options will help cohesive and harmonious relationships flourish. Regrettably, the damage to the relationship began with that little bit of information you had, which “they just needed to know.” 

Rather than expending time and effort as the architect of other people’s lives, we could instead offer ourselves as a resource for people to use to live the life of their own design. That would involve a more humble, curious, and less certain approach to the relationships we forge. Just because we don’t understand why someone else is doing what they’re doing, that doesn’t mean that what they are doing is wrong. It also doesn’t mean that they should do something different. 

There is no doubt that we all need help from other people from time to time. For that help to be experienced as helpful, though, the person seeking the help must be able to direct the timing, pace, and the nature of what is offered. Ironically, the person providing the help is the one who needs to be told how they can be most helpful. For help to be genuinely beneficial, the provider of the help must be willing to be guided and directed by the recipient of the help. 

More enriching and fulfilling relationships are ours to create. A little less confidence in our own sovereignty over the path others should take. A little more interest in learning from others about the help they need whenever when they need it. Do we have what it takes to change “I know what’s best for you” to “I’m here if you need me”? And, more importantly, can we accept being needed as they need us, not as we think they should need us? 

Tough questions. But were they to be embraced wholeheartedly, we would enter a world of unprecedentedly gracious and heartwarming relating. Perhaps changing six little words, and the attitude they embody, is the key to a magnificently contented and serenely vibrant future for all who share this planet.