Often, people don’t want advice. They want to vent, to be heard, to explore how they think and feel, and to connect; to not feel so alone.
When someone tells me about a problem they’re having and I give advice, it shuts down all those objectives. I seem like a know-it-all (who doesn’t actually know it all). And the other person feels distanced from me—more alone than ever.
So why do I do it? Because I’m…
Feeling responsible for other people. Like if I don’t look out for us, no one will.
Feeling like I can predict what will happen and prevent it. If only people would listen.
Wanting to be useful. Like Luisa in Encanto (2021), “I’m pretty surе I’m worthless if I can’t be of servicе.”
Wanting to demonstrate my knowledge. Aka being a show-off.
Wanting to seem like I know the answer. Hating to admit I don’t know.
Let go of the need to “save” people from their choices. Even if I can see what’s coming (because I’ve been through it before), I can’t spare someone else the pain I went through.
(More to the point: I can’t spare myself the pain of watching them go through it.) Telling them what to do won’t work; some lessons can only be learned through experience.
Let go of the need to prove yourself. You can’t prove how much you care; giving advice only proves you don’t care enough to listen.
And you can’t prove you’re right. (It can’t be proven in advance, and besides, you might be wrong.)
So let the other person be the expert on their life, because they are.
Let go of the need to solve other people’s problems for them. Remember that I’m not responsible for all the problems in the world (thank God, or I’d have a lot to answer for).
“The harm is in the unwanted help or helping them when they need to figure things out for themselves. Help is the sunny side of control.”
When I’m feeling like I’ve been there before and I’ve got it all figured out—remember that for this person’s life, I DON’T!!! I haven’t been in their life; I have only been in mine.
I repeat these in my head when I’m bursting to interrupt, advise, or say something I shouldn’t.
Listen and learn.
Their mouth open, your mouth closed.
Let God* sit on your tongue.
*Metaphorically, since I’m an atheist.
All you have to do is listen
This picture book, The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld, illustrates the point. (Play the video on mute if the voices annoy you.)
Video: The Rabbit Listened — read aloud by Buddy Son Storytime
As does this scene from Little Miss Sunshine (2006). (The first clip is for context.)
Videos: Little Miss Sunshine — “Color Blind”
It’s okay to give advice when someone directly asks you for it. (E.g., “I’d love your advice on…”)
It’s also okay to offer a simple solution if they haven’t thought of it. I like this explanation from Metafilter user tel3path:
“When I do spot an opening to offer a solution they may not have thought of, I usually put it in terms of ‘what if you did x? would that work?’
Sometimes that does help. For example my friend was pissed off because her landlady had suddenly imposed a ton of old furniture on her, which she then had to fit into the garden shed, which was a lot of work, and then the garden shed didn’t have any room for her stuff any more. I said what if you tried to fit your own stuff inside the furniture? And clearly labelled it as belonging to you so it doesn’t mistakenly get taken away if the furniture is moved?
Well, it so happened that in her annoyance and hard labour she had not thought of that, and when I made my suggestion the sun came out. You don’t always hit the jackpot like that, but it’s worth it when you do.”
What if you’re worried about someone?
You still can’t give advice, but you can share your feelings. For example, if your friend’s boyfriend is treating her badly, you could say, gently, “I see the way he treats you, and I don’t like it.”
Your attitude must be that you trust her to make her own decisions. I like the phrase “Only you can know what to do.” (See how that’s different from “OMG just dump him already!!!”?)
Anyway, this is a big topic. I recommend Helping Her Get Free: A Guide for Families and Friends of Abused Women by Susan Brewster.
Overall: Be a lighthouse
You can’t make people change, but you can change yourself, and light the way for them—silently.
“Consider a lighthouse. It stands on the shore with its beckoning light, guiding ships safely into the harbor. The lighthouse can’t uproot itself, wade out into the water, grab the ship by the stern, and say, ‘Listen, you fool! If you stay on this path, you may break up on the rocks!’
No, the ship has some responsibility for its own destiny. It can choose to be guided by the lighthouse. Or it can go its own way. The lighthouse is not responsible for the ship’s decisions. All it can do is be the best lighthouse it knows how to be.“
 This song could be the responsible-child anthem.
Video: Surface Pressure by Jessica Darrow (from Encanto).
(I don’t feel this way anymore—thanks in large part to Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers by Karyl McBride.)
 Metafilter thread, “Help me not give advice and instead be a supportive loving friend.” Ask.metafilter.com/306796/Help-me-not-give-advice-and-instead-be-a-supportive-loving-friend.
 As advised in Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft.
 From Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder by Paul Mason and Randi Kreger.
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