December 30, 2018
J.R.R. Tolkien said, “Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill.”
We like to think we are supportive, loving, and kind. Which certainly we often are. We are also self-centered, insecure, and sometimes downright thoughtless and unkind.
When your friend or partner or child comes to you in pain because they’re struggling with something uncomfortable, or confusing, or even unbearable, what do you do? How do you feel?
When others share their sorrows it makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s hard to see someone we care about hurting, or going down what looks to us like an unworkable, or maybe even dangerous, path.
When we are confronted with someone else’s pain the most natural response is a feeling of discomfort. Our human instinct is to attempt to solve the problem for them, or talk them out of their misery.
The problem with either of those reactions, if acted upon, is that we have hijacked their problem and made it about us and our solution.
How often have you shared a concern with someone and been blind-sided by their unsolicited advice or ideas? Often what’s offered is profoundly limited because what might work for them is something you’d never in a million years do.
Unsolicited advice is generally what would work for the person offering it. Unless they ask us what we have tried, they have no idea what would work for us, even if they think their solution ‘should’ work for anyone and everyone.
There is a thin line between coming from our ego and a belief that we have the answers vs wanting to help. If you’re anything like me, I have to work very hard to make sure I’m not inflating my own ego when I’m ‘trying to help’.
There is an eastern truism that goes something like this: “If someone asks you for advice, don’t offer it until they’ve asked for it three times; when they ask a fourth time, consider not giving it then either”.
We all have our own answers.
What I want to hear when I’m struggling is: “Tell me more; help me understand what you’re experiencing”. At those times someone else’s humility is like salve to a wound.
WHAT NOT TO SAY:
“It’s not as bad as it seems.” Maybe it is.
“Don’t be sad. There’s a bright side to everything.” Not always. And maybe not this time.
“In five years this won’t seem important at all.” Are you kidding? I feel like my life is over and you’re talking about five years down the road?
“Look at the bright side, you’ll find something better now.” Yes, there probably is a bright side, but timing is everything and today, at this moment, the bright side doesn’t yet exist.
“Let me tell you about my struggle with that …” When someone is suffering: IT . IS . NOT . ABOUT . YOU.
“This makes me feel so sad.” Again, IINAY. (Although it is OK to say, “I feel so impotent here, knowing I can’t fix this. But I’m here and I’m not going anywhere as long as you need me”.)
WHAT TO DO:
WHAT TO SAY:
Sweetheart, that so sucks.
I want to help.
Please tell me more.
Is there anything I can do to make this even a little better in this moment?
I’m so sorry you’re having to go through this.
This is really hard but you’re handling it.
Whatever happens we’ll figure it out together.
You’re not alone. I’m not going anywhere.
IF YOU FEEL YOU MUST SHARE INFORMATION, SAY THIS:
“I have some thoughts. Do you want to hear them or would you rather just sit together for now?”
Everyone has a superpower. Generally, advice-giving isn’t one of them. If you are the rare exception to the rule, and believe that advice giving is your super power, consider not flaunting it. Save it for when someone is ready for it.
The next time someone attempts to share their discomfort, breathe all the way out, soften your body, and prepare to listen better than you’ve ever listened before. I’d love to hear what happens.