Aldo Civico Ph.D.

Turning Point

What's Wrong With Giving Advice

... and a better way to really be there for someone.

Posted Mar 13, 2015

Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock
Source: Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock

We might believe that dispensing advice is the best way to help others who are in trouble. We are less aware of the fact that giving advice can, instead, represent what Robert Bolton defined as "a roadblock in interpersonal communication."

In a previous post, I wrote about forms of judgment that can inhibit healthy communication. In this post, I would like to highlight why advising might not be the best course of action if, out of compassion, we really want to help them with the problem they are confronted with.

In fact, becoming aware about why advising can inhibit good communication can make us better and more effective communicators.

Isn't it ironic? Communication is what makes us human, and yet that is the area where we often fail. Couples split, employees resign, friendships fall apart, all mostly because of a breakdown in communication, which often reflects poor skills in listening—even more so when a situation gets heated.

How then can we become more effective communicators? Increased awareness of our own habits will improve the quality of our communication and help us to develop new skills.

Why being Mr. Solution is not the solution.

Someone comes to us with a problem, and we, moved by the desire to be helpful, want to immediately provide a solution. Don’t we have this temptation almost constantly? It’s almost comic: We might not have the solution to our own problems, but somehow we always manage to have the best advice for others.

Dispensing advice right and left is one of my own big temptations, despite my training and experience in conflict resolution. Because of my role as an educator, mentor, and coach, I might feel that I have to provide a solution, and when I succumb to this temptation, I fail miserably because I am more eager to show that I am an expert than to listen to the other person and understand him or her. It's about me feeling good about myself, not about helping the other person feel good.

What really happens when we provide advice? Unconsciously, we send to the other person the message that he or she does not have the resources to solve their problem. We say (without saying it), "You are not good enough." And we put ourselves on a pedestal, pretending that we understand the other person's problem when we are really not in their shoes.

The best way to give an advice is not to give an advice at all, but instead to listen deeply.

Rather than saying, "Here is what you need to do," we need to shut up and open the ear of our heart. We need to create a space where the other person can articulate what is afflicting him or her. Rather than providing a response, it's much more productive to be curious about the person's situation and encourage the conversation with open ended questions. In articulating his or her problem, often the best solution becomes self-evident to our interlocutor—most of the time, the answer to a problem lies within us. All we need is to be reminded of how resourceful and powerful we can be.

Some time ago, I was part of a workshop for community leaders from Syria. At some point, a woman, whose two brothers had been killed by the forces of Assad, unleashed in a rage her desperation. "What should we do?" she asked me, while tears of anger and grief run down her face. 

I felt overwhelmed. What possible advice could I provide before such great tragedy? None, really; and that realization frustrated me. I had come to this small border town in Turkey, all the way from New York, eager to help with my more-than-20 years of experience in conflict resolution, and I had no answer for this woman. Than, while she continued to vent her frustration, something clicked within me, and I realized that what I could really offer was to listen with compassion to her pain. For a moment, I focused on my breath to silence my own worries, and then I focused fully on the tale the woman shared. I heard her out, and did not utter a word.

Later that afternoon, the woman came up to me. She looked at me straight in the eyes, and said, "Thank you, you gave me peace!" I smiled back and we embraced. Somehow and somewhere within her self, she had found new strength. “If I have come all my way from the U.S. just to listen to the grief of this woman, it was worth the trip,” I thought to myself. And I was reminded of a great lesson: There are situations where not giving advice is the best advice you can give.  

The best advice is to silence ourselves—and the temptation to provide immediate solutions—and to lend an ear to the other.

I am not advising that we should be deprived of opinions or counsel. What I am advocating is to focus on authentic and deep listening. If, then, we are asked for our opinion and counsel, it will emerge from a space of compassion. It will resonate with our interlocutor. Rather than a mere advice, it will be a drop of wisdom.

Aldo Civico brings to the table 25 years of global experience assisting communities and organizations to strenghten their conflict resolution capability. More recently, he has being appointed as academic director for the foundation of soccer star James Rodriguez (Real Madrid), which trough soccer fosters a culture of peacebuilding in Colombia. Dr. Civico sends weekly practical advice on effective communication and conflict resolution through his free newsletter.