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When advice WAS helpful

Questioning my assumptions

I am not someone who readily gives advice about what people should do with their lives. My preference is to help them think things through for themselves and arrive at their own conclusions.

So I was mightily struck by an apparently true story quoted in ‘Do one thing different’ by Bill O’Hanlon. Some very specific advice had a transformational effect.

The story

Imagine a woman in her sixties, living by herself in a large house that she has inherited.

She has sufficient income to live comfortably, but without family or close relatives, she’s lonely.

Deteriorating health means that she’s confined to a wheelchair, and she feels isolated and lacking in purpose. In her darker moments, she wonders why she is still alive.

But today is different for her. She has a visitor. For the moment, just imagine that visitor is you.

As you listen to her, you get a strong sense of how restricted and depressing her life has become.

She tells you that the only time she goes out is to church each week. But even that doesn’t give her any social contact because she arrives at the last minute and leaves early, so that she doesn’t inconvenience anyone with her wheelchair. The only thing that brings the life back into her eyes is mention of the African violets that fill her greenhouse.

What would you say to her? Would you offer sympathy? Empathy? Admiration for the plants?

What actually happened

The actual visitor who turned up to see her one day – a colleague of her nephew – had no such uncertainties.

He listened to her story and told her that her nephew was concerned at how depressed she had become. She agreed that things had become serious.

That visitor was the psychiatrist Milton Erikson and he was not going to let the matter rest there. He had no hesitations about offering a way forward. He said:

“Here you are with all this money, time on your hands, and a green thumb. And it’s all going to waste.

What I recommend is that you get a copy of your church membership list and then look in the latest church bulletin. You’ll find announcements of births, illnesses, graduations, engagements, and marriages in there — all the happy and sad events in the life of people in the congregation. Make a number of African violet cuttings and get them well established. Then re-pot them in gift pots and have your handyman drive you to the homes of people who are affected by these happy or sad events. Bring them a plant and your congratulations or condolences and comfort, whichever is appropriate to the situation.”

She took his advice. She broke out of her habit of making herself small and insignificant and instead, made a real contribution to the community. When she died 20 years later, her obituary described her as the African Violet Queen who touched the lives and heart of thousands of people.

So does this mean we should give advice?

Some time ago, I wrote an article ‘How to avoid the fix-it trap’ about the perils of giving advice on the grounds that it’s rarely wanted and even more rarely acted upon. At best it’s ignored. At worst, it can fracture a relationship.

Show empathy instead, I wrote, and help people find their own way forward.

But now I am modifying my stance.

Empathy says ‘I’m here… I’m present… I want to know how things are for you’. This can sooth a troubled spirit. It demonstrates that we are present to another person’s situation, without judging it of trying to fix it.

But sometimes, something else might be helpful – namely, an impetus for action.

I’m seeing Erikson’s tough love as a different way of expressing understanding – one that broke the restrictive mould and breathed new life and energy into what had been a sad and reclusive existence..