Advice must be one of the few things everyone asks for, but no one really wants. What people basically want is someone to listen, not someone to tell them what to do. Especially if they're complaining about a partner.
Ambrose Bierce summarised it very nicely when he said, “A bore is someone who talks when you wish them to listen.”
In short, think twice before dishing out advice. Firstly people don't really want it, and secondly, if they try it and it doesn't work, it somehow becomes your problem.
Your best friend and the lager lout
Picture the following scenario: Your best friend has got involved with someone you really do not like. You are convinced, and probably quite rightly so, that the road ahead for her and this creature is not strewn with roses. After once again being told how fat she was in front of others at a dinner party, she phones you because she needs a sympathetic ear.
You end up telling her in no uncertain terms what you think of her lager lout and also make a couple of rather direct suggestions as to how she should end the relationship forthwith.
The following week you spot them in the supermarket hand-in-hand. Not only do you feel hurt, but you also now have an explanation as to why she stood you up on your birthday.
Are we advice junkies?
This experience is by no means unusual. The problem arises because so few people can resist the temptation to speak their mind, when listening was all that was required of them.
By telling people what they should do, we don’t give them the opportunity to work through a problem by themselves. What they want from us is to act as a sounding board and to create a safe space for them to explore their feelings.
When we give them our solution to a situation, which we might not always understand fully, we make them feel guilty if they don’t follow our advice. We also create an opportunity for them to play the “yes, but” game, thereby allowing them to make their problem your problem.
So what do we do?
So how do we give good and effective counsel to our nearest and dearest when they are in distress? Not always easy to follow, but here are a couple of pointers:
- Don’t take responsibility for your friends’ problems. Be there for them, but don’t feel compelled to take over.
- Don’t spend hours telling them about your experiences that were just like that. No two people can ever have exactly the same feelings or experience. Your friend wants to talk about her problem, not listen to yours.
- Avoid crying with them. They need you to be strong and together to contain their problems. If you cry, they feel they have to hold back, because you are not coping.
- Don’t be judgemental in giving your values or ideas. Try not to create guilt by passing on your own ideas on religion, sex, drug taking, alcohol, and politics.
- Avoid appearing shocked, as this will stop your friends confiding in you.
- Make sure that whatever your friends tell you is treated with confidentiality.
There are also skills you can employ to make it easier for your friends to explore their options and come up with their own solutions.
- You can reflect their feelings as they talk to you (e.g. I can see this makes you very frustrated).
- You could ask open-ended questions (You say you felt uncomfortable when your mother visited last week?).
- You could also challenge incorrect perceptions or behaviours (You say there is nothing you can do about your drinking problem?)
- You can summarise what they have said and ask if you have heard them correctly
Lastly, be there for people, but do not allow them to use you as a Wailing Wall – it will only prevent them from taking real responsibility for their own problems. (Susan Erasmus, Health24. updated June 2011)
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