When Advice is Unadvisable

February 4, 2013


"Doctor, am I ready to end our therapy sessions?"

“Doctor, am I ready to end our therapy sessions?”

“What do you think I should?” asked a weeping old man as I held his hand beside his hospital bed. An ethical minefield for any sympathetic listener. I wanted tell him. I could so clearly see what the problem was and what he should do about it. Luckily I held my tongue. It is a cardinal rule of good listening: Never Tell Them What To Do.

And with good reason. There is no such thing as universal advice. What works for one man in one situation may be disastrous for another.  Just as no one medication cures all ailments.  What made it more delicate was we had built a rapport, he trusted me. If my advice were to go ass-up, he would surely feel betrayed.

But a part of me wondered if that was correct. Who’s to say he was genuinely after my guidance? Very rarely do people want to be told what to do or, heaven forbid, be told what to think. Don’t we prize only our own opinion? I my stroppy youth I used to envy John Boy Walton. His Pappy cured everything with a few choice words. In real life I never listened to anyone. I knew better (as all teenagers inherently do). Not that I regret any of those decisions. Hey, mistakes mould character (that may explain why mine is as convoluted as an Origami octopus).

Besides, people who want to be told what to do or to think are being best lazy. Or worse, they are pathologically weak. This is the real reason why soliciting advice is a dangerous sport. The adviser may have a hidden agenda. The advice may not be in your best interest. The elderly and sick are particularly vulnerable, so it makes sense that the hospital denies us the right to give advice.

When I dodged from giving out my opinion he used the old tried and true: “What would you do if you were in my situation?”

I wasn’t going to fall into that: it’d be easier to climb out of a tar-pit. Part of the skill of active listening is interjecting encouragement when the speaker is heading in the right direction. It is passive advice giving, but advice it is none the less. It is an art to make the speaker feel he is the one who made the right decision when in fact the listener guided him by asking the right questions. It is the mark of a good listener, and a great friend.

As I encouraged him to think through, it became apparent that he was not looking advice at all. He was like the vast majority of the human race, he was simply gathering diverse opinions. I have no doubt he will have asked the same question to as many people as would listen. He was hoping for a consensus. Or at the very least a wider perspective on his problem. People do this on the internet daily. They invite anonymous strangers from all over the world to pipe in on their problems. It is not advice seeking, it is conducting an opinion poll. And why not, when reality is layered and ambiguous, it helps to have as many different perspectives as possible.

But sometimes (about as often as a total eclipse) someone who earnestly desires guidance will seek out your advice. What an honor! And what a responsibility. The trick is to determine above and beyond the obvious asked question, what exactly does this man require from me. The right advice at the correct time and in the proper manner requires extraordinary subtlety of judgement. It demands expertise of the subject as well as knowledge of the person asking the advice. No easy challenge. That may be why the wise generally avoid giving advice.   

I once lived with a guru and at that time I imagined he would solve all of my problems, both big and small. But nothing doing. He gleefully refused. Instead he highlighted my strengths and then showed me how to improve upon them. Little did I understand then that a genuine guru never tells you what to do or what to believe. He demonstrated the ways and means through his own example. I think this is where parents go horribly wrong: Do as I say, not as I do. 

One of the gifts of growing old (yes, there are more than one) is when someone asks, “What’s your secret?” It means they have observed you and are saying they admire you. However, I seldom ‘blab my secret’. The answer has to comes from them and to help them with that requires active listening.

The times I have been successful in active listening is when my life journey has touched upon what that person already knew to be correct and beneficial for himself. My presence merely served to reinforce their innate wisdom (confirmation bias).

So my advice about giving advice? Do you really want to know.

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4 Responses to “When Advice is Unadvisable”

  1. Advice needs to be just that: advice. In the end, you are the final decider in everything you do.

  2. Wow – like that age brings wisdom but having worked as a mentor for so many years, I think I could be challenged by your type of active listening. I see the merit though and on occasion use it too but it is knowing when it is appropriate. Sometimes I find that getting other people’s opinions and ideas helps me form my own. After all why should I make a mistake when I can learn from someone else?

  3. annmullen said

    Pradeep, I spend so much time solving problems that I forget that I cannot solve people problems. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. There is a fine line between active listening and providing guidance. If the requester expects advice, active listening is not appropriate. If advice is not the motive, but a means to discuss the problem in the open, then the option applies.

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