Why I Stopped Giving Advice, And Started Listening More

Why I Stopped Giving Advice, And Started Listening More

I know my friends care, and I know they're right. But that just doesn't help me right now.


There is some, and perhaps much hypocrisy in the writing of this article. In a piece preaching about the ills of giving advice to people, I know that I am, by nature, giving you advice. But that was a piece of advice I was given a long time ago: if you really want to listen to people and hear them out, giving advice is the worst thing you can do. It took me a long time to accept that school of thought, and an even longer time to apply it to my own life, but once I stopped giving advice, my whole life changed.

I generally consider myself a peaceful, even-keeled person who is hard to anger. But there is one thing that people do that will put me in battle-mode much faster than it should: telling people what to do. Often times, my friends will tell me "Ryan, you have to stop doing this" or "Ryan, you have to stop thinking about this," in well-intentioned sentiments that often aren't wrong. In fact, I probably would be better off if I followed their advice and their expert opinions on how I should live my own life.

But that's not the point - the point in life is for every person to make their own decisions, learn from their own mistakes, and ultimately live their own lives. I never have as much of a visceral, aversive reaction to anything than I do when a friend tells me, often out of good will, what I should do to better my life or my situation. The tone of condescension that believes I never thought of their piece of advice before leads me into dangerous territory of doing the exact opposite of what they advise me.

Let me give a particular anecdote that has taken place in my own life: a year ago, a friend sat me down in conversation and expressed concern about how much I was drinking and how my alcohol consumption was reminding him of family members who suffered from alcoholism. He expressed how good sobriety would be to me as if it was gospel, and I remember the first thing I did in disgust: I went to the fridge and got a drink. At that point, I wasn't a person to be listened to; I was a project to be fixed, and absolutely no one was going to tell me what to do.

Maybe I'm just a unique, more headstrong type of person, but that is not to say I'm not tempted to give advice to my friends when they come to me with their own problems. It comes naturally to humans, and, again, we give advice to our friends and loved ones because we have good intentions. And it especially hurts to see a friend or loved one go through something so similar to something you yourself went through.

But in giving advice, we tend not to see that we're making our friends' problems more about us than about our friends. I remember, several months ago, listening to two adults share their experiences with cancer, and one was telling the other, "Yeah, I've been scared recently, and I just can't help it," to which the other adult said "stop fearing it. It's not going to help anything." While the second adult may have been right, that wasn't the point: the advice didn't help anything. It was imposing one experience of processing cancer onto another.

Research in linguistics suggests that language works through strengthening "frame-circuits" by experience, and that these frame-circuits get stronger every time we hear the activating language. Even negating the frame-circuit activates and strengthens it, so when Richard Nixon famously said "I am not a crook," more people thought of him as a crook. Likewise, advice such as "stop drinking" or "stop smoking" is more likely to just lead the person to strengthen frame-circuits related to drinking or smoking, and, in many cases, will lead them to drink or smoke more. I'm well aware that the advice I witnessed to stop fearing cancer to a cancer patient may as well made them fear more.

Parker J. Palmer, in "The Gift of Presence, The Perils of Advice," recounts an experience where he started to realize the perils of advice: when he suffered from his first bout of clinical depression. People just kept giving him advice, and although they were good-intentioned, they just left him feeling more depressed. He talks about examples of advice people gave, such as remembering trying to bolster self-esteem or trying to interact more with nature.

Palmer puts it most wisely here: "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." People are well within the capacity to save and heal themselves, and compassion means to "suffer with" a certain person. Not many people do that. To be a witness that suffers with a person takes a good deal of time and patience to listen, which not everyone wants to do.

I have been in so much pain recently that every time someone gives me advice, I can tell they feel like they're in danger of catching my pain as if it was a disease. As Palmer notes it, these people in my life, my friends with good intention, "want to apply their fix, then cut and run, figuring they've done the best they can to 'save' the other person." It takes a lot, nowadays, to even muster the strength to open up about that pain, and the instinct of many people to say "I can't imagine what you're going through, but you have to do this..." is all forms of discouraging. I know my friends care, and I know they're right. But that just doesn't help me right now.

That isn't to say advice has no value: we go to mentors all the time for advice about things, and that's often one role they have in our lives. But the key is that people will seek out advice from the people that they insist on getting advice from. If we have an idea for a friend, and it's unsolicited, then sometimes it's better to keep our mouths shut. In my personal conversations with friends who are grieving and afflicted, the most I'll say is the occasional "yeah," or "I see." It is in being the recipient of advice-givers that I stopped giving advice myself, and started listening more, and that has made all the difference.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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