How to (not) Give Advice

(Q) Your advice is elegant, poignant, and heartfelt. Mine is . . . not. And I would really like to help my friend. Can you offer some guidance on how to best give advice?

(A) There is a reason why we call it “sound” advice. Sound advice resonates with us. It strikes a chord that we recognize. It sounds as if it came from within our own being, even if someone else spoke the words aloud.

Our first association with advice came from parents and teachers; well-intentioned people who are at least one generation away from us. Parental advice says, “Do what I say, not I what I do.” It says, “Be careful. Be safe. Don’t get hurt.” Other sources of advice include experts and professionals in their field. Expert advice is good advice if it fits our particular situation. But when it doesn’t fit, it can feel disheartening. We might think, “Even the experts can’t help me. Now what?” And that’s when we turn to friends.

The people we believe care about and understand us, and probably know us best. We turn to those we can trust. So the first thing I would say, is make sure you are someone who can be trusted with sensitive, difficult, potentially painful situations. If you can’t, it’s okay to say, “I may not be the right person to turn to in this situation.” Or, “I’m a good listener, but I don’t think I have anything helpful to offer.” Always be open, candid, and sincere.

Did your friend ask you for information, advice or guidance? Is the help you would want to offer solicited or unsolicited? Will your words be welcome? If you are struggling to find the right words and phrases, or plotting a path around potential landmines, you have your answer.

Do you have information for your friend? Information is factual and straightforward. It is not based on opinion or point of view. If your information is reliable, they should be able to obtain it from personal study, investigation, or from another source. Never assume your friend doesn’t have the personal resources to find answers for themselves or within themselves. We are never the only ones with answers. We only hold exact keys to our own life.

Would your friend receive the most benefit from advice or guidance? Advice is fairly specific and oriented toward action or decision making. We base advice on what we know and believe to be true, but also on our best personal opinion. If you stood in your friend’s exact place, what would you do? Since you know them so well, what should they do? We want our friends to be happy and successful. The advice we offer should help them to be free of their predicament or concern. Guidance is more like mentorship; it takes place over a period of time. I once heard someone say that reliance on guidance turns people into passive consumers of wisdom. I don’t agree but think it’s fair to say that over-reliance on almost anything is not healthy. If the exchange is done well, you and your friend will both benefit.

Here are a few more thoughts. Be the message, not the messenger. Forget whose idea is right or wrong, first or last. Later on, your friend’s faulty memory may recall with certainty that someone else came up with the perfect solution. Can you smile and agree, knowing that the quality and condition of their life has vastly improved, or do you need credit for having been the problem solver? We are only mirrors and mouthpieces for something grander.

I started out by talking about sound advice. I meant that literally. When working with clients I listen for what sounds are missing from what they are telling me – where did the sound of happiness go? Why does their voice sound hollow? Who or what is speaking about what is going on? I am listening for what is out of tune, time, or tempo. There is an order to things, even during these strange artificial-feeling times. Sunday arrives before Monday. Dinner is later in the day than breakfast. Finding the best path forward sometimes requires that we sync-up with a new pattern or order. Insisting that things go a certain way may no longer work, and a good friend may be just the person to point that out.

Sound advice and guidance helps us to feel more comfortable and confident about the decisions and choices that are available to us. It adds color, texture and sound to life. Without it, life can feel as if we are walking beside our life instead of deeply embedded in it.

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