Why you need to stop giving advice right now

By Varsha Roysam|30th Nov 2016
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First, let’s get hypocrisy out of the way. Yes, this is a piece that is advising you to stop advising. In my defence, someone needed to play the Devil and I volunteered as tribute.

Many people come to us with their troubles, but before jumping in as saviour (oh, so enthusiastically), we need to understand that most times they’re never really looking for advice. People, when they voice their troubles, look for sounding boards that listen. It is when they talk things out that their situation becomes more lucid to them. So our role, in an ideal situation, must be of a dummy.

Image : shutterstock

Image : shutterstock

The educationist, Palker J Palmer, in his essay The Gift of Presence, The Perils of Advice, says eloquently, “The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is.” Although this is in particular reference to personal advice, there is no reason why it can’t be applied to other cases. Be it career or business advice, there is always a way to be helpful without actually giving advice. To help you help others better, here is a better understanding of why advice never works and what you could do instead.

You have no way of understanding their situation

Advising comes naturally because people, as social beings, are programmed to share. Everyone wants to share their experiences and stories, and we share with a notion that it can help others. Although this has a strong social basis, and therefore, can actually help others, the whole agenda of advising is self-centred. The advice we give is always from our perspective, specific to our situations, and from the way we see the world. Since we have not been gifted with the ability to read minds, and therefore an ability to walk in other’s shoes, we naturally – and rightly – assume that everyone sees exactly what we do.

Here’s the logic. When one person is different from the other and when one situation is different from another, how can we believe that two people could react the same way? This is what makes advice obsolete the minute it’s spoken. People can’t apply our advice simply because it’s ours, because it formed from a situation and state of mind that is unique to us. This is why we can never fully understand the other person’s situation – and if we don’t understand, wouldn’t it be futile to advise?

People don’t like being told what to do

No one does. Everybody wants to protect their right to make their own decisions, and when we tell them what they should be doing (as we often do when we give our valuable advice) it automatically triggers a defensive response. The mind is a curious defiant thing; similar to how when we want to not think of something, we think of it, defiance in this situation comes into play. So even if by any chance our advice is actually relevant and could be helpful, we kill that chance by telling them they should be doing it. The defensiveness is also a response to our judgements against them. When we tell someone what they should be doing, we’re inadvertently implying that we know better and that they’re not emotionally or intellectually capable of making that decision. It’s a wonder people don’t hate us already.

What you could do instead

Listening to them is really the best way to help them. By listening, we let them know that they’re being heard, and that their troubles are important. Respect is a two way street. It is only when we consider their opinions as important that they become more open to our suggestions. By giving them this space, we would have ensured that defensiveness doesn’t get in the way. This is especially important to keep in mind when you really need someone to take your advice.

Instead of telling them what to do, we can tell them what we did in a similar situation or what we would do. Our experiences will serve as a model and they’ll be free to take what they want from it. If we give them the freedom to choose, there is a very good chance that they will consider. Before throwing in our suggestion, however, we need understand as much as possible about their situation – and for that, we need to ask questions.

To conclude, it is best to suggest alternatives to the problem only when it seems relevant and only after we’ve seen their point of view. If we don’t understand their situation, it really is best to resist putting on a cape and forcefully rescuing someone that doesn’t need any rescuing.