I am, like a lot of people, really interested in fixing problems. I like solutions, resolutions, and conclusions. I like identifying the problem. I like finding the answer. And I looooooooooove it when people ask for my advice. It makes me feel important and respected and valued. It makes me needed. But I am learning things about giving advice. So here it is in all its ironic glory…my advice on giving advice:
- Sometimes people just need to be heard.
We’ve all heard this before. “Just listen – don’t try to fix it.” It sounds deceptively easy but I am going to challenge you. The next time someone starts telling you about her fight with her boyfriend or his difficulty sleeping, is your first instinct to mentally prepare an answer for them? As they’re speaking, are you already listing off possible solutions to their problem? As hard as it is, try to redirect your focus to hear what they’re really feeling in that moment. Don’t worry about having an answer prepared. Be in the moment of struggle WITH them.
- Listen for what isn’t said.
My tendency is often to rush to answer the question I think I hear. But sometimes that means I miss what is really being asked. Try to hear the silence. Try to hear the real question under all the stuff that comes pouring out.
- Reflect back what you’re hearing.
This is an active listening tool that many of us are familiar with but we forget to use it. It doesn’t have to be fakey and therapist-like if you use it simply: “Okay, what I hear you saying is that this and this are the biggest problems. Is that you’re feeling?”
- The problem-haver is often the best problem-solver.
Yes, I have some awesome ideas that will probably totally fix your issue. They will make your life easier. You will probably spend the rest of your problem-free eternity dancing with puppies inside of rainbow-covered theme parks. But, in my experience, you probably already have the answer that you need. Chances are really good that you might already KNOW that you have the answer you need. Sometimes you just need someone to help you ask the question. Before I offer advice, I try to ask, “So what do you want to do?” or “So what choices do you feel like you have right now?” If I can help you solve your own problem, instead of me just telling you what I think the answer is, you’re much more likely to find a solution that is a) actually helpful and b) one that you will actually use.
- Ask more, offer less.
This goes with the point above but if my friend is still stuck between choices, I might be able to ask: “So if you made this choice that you mentioned before, how do you think that might feel?” or “It sounds like these three things you mentioned are your best options – which one feels like the best (not the perfect) solution for right now?” Keep asking them to talk about how they’re feeling. Most people don’t have safe spaces to reflect with another person. Help make it safe for them to do that by asking open-ended questions.
- Sometimes there isn’t an answer.
Have you ever been in a situation where someone asked you advice but no matter how many different solutions you suggested, NOTHING seemed to help? They shot down every idea, there was a pitfall in every possibility you offered? Yeah, me too. Sometimes this means what we’ve already discussed here – that they don’t necessarily need you to give them a solution, they need you to hear them. But it might also mean there isn’t an answer. I know. That feels crazy. Maybe the answer exists. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it will be clear later. Maybe there are no good solutions, just temporary fixes or choices that are less horrible than others. Maybe neither of you has the answer. If either one of you has conversations with God, this is a good time for that. Actually, every time is a good time for that. I think sometimes, in the end, it’s okay to say, “Wow, I have no idea how I would handle that situation but I am really feeling for you right now. I’m here to hear you.”
- If you absolutely must straight-up offer advice, try owning it as something from your perspective.
“When I imagine myself dealing with that problem that you are having, I feel like I would do such-and-such a thing and here is why. I don’t know if that helps you. What are you thinking right now?”
- Lastly, don’t give advice unless you’re asked.
That’s just an open invitation to alienate someone you care about. I don’t care how nicely you try to phrase it. “Do you mind if I offer you a piece of advice?” pretty much always feels like judgment. Listen, reflect back, ask questions, hear them. If they ask what you think, own your feelings and advice as your own, not as a universal problem-solver.
So there you have it. Some unsolicited advice on advice. What would you add? Who in your life gives the best advice? What makes their advice helpful? What makes advice NOT helpful?
PS: Still working to catch up on blog prompts. Yayyyyy!