They’re asking for advice … aren’t they?
(in deep distress about an incident at work) “I don’t know how it happened – and now I can’t see a way out. What should I do?”
(feeling under pressure at work to make a decision) “I’ve been asked to sort out the developmenht team – but they’ve got so many problems I don’t know whether to see it as a challenge or a slippery slope to oblivion. What do you think?”
(whose ‘A’ level results are lower than expected) “Mum… what am I going to do?”
(whose girlfriend of two months standing is going home to Australia and wants him to go with her) “Do you think I should go?”
(deeply hurt about something said by a mutual friend) “I feel so helpless. What would you do if you were me?”
You feel for each one of them. You desperately want to ease their pain, reduce their distress and help them get out of their stuck place.
You’re convinced you can see things dispassionately – Right? You can take the long view. After all, you’ve weathered the same sorts of crises yourself and you’ve got just the right sort of experience to be able to make some helpful suggestions.
So what’s wrong with offering advice?
Hang on a minute. Let’s just check something. Might you be assuming that:
1. they genuinely do not know what to do?
2. they are asking for your advice so that they can act on it?
3. you can offer ideas and suggestions that they have not thought of?
Whether or not these assumptions are true is not the point here. What matters is their power to trigger the ‘fix-it’ response. With the best of intentions – and a genuine desire to make things better for people – we accept the invitation to give advice.
What happens if we do?
Each one of them is likely to say:
- ‘get real”
- ‘you obviously don’t understand’
- ‘that wouldn’t work’
And where does that leave you? Most likely you will find yourself somewhere on a continuum between mildly frustrated (“Well, you did ask!”) and intensely annoyed (“So why are you asking me for advice when you’re not even prepared to listen!!!?”)
What can you do instead?
Offer your full presence. Listen. Let them know that you can hear their distress – but don’t try to fix it. Use all your faculties and intuition to guess at what they might be feeling and needing. As they talk, they themselves will gradually get clearer about the issues facing them and the stories they are telling themselves.
Eventually, they will be able to make up their own minds about what to do next. Then they will tell you how helpful you’ve been.
You might not think that you’ve done anything.
In fact, you will have given them a precious gift: empathy.