The Trouble with Advice

The other day I was talking to someone about a difficulty I was experiencing; not a major problem, just something that had cropped up that I wanted to talk through. I had hardly started to describe my issue when up came a suggestion, a piece of advice, from my friend. So why did that make me feel uncomfortable?

The wish to help others is there for many people and as Buddhists we train not just for self, but also for others. I have been involved in the helping side of things for many years. My motivation for this is probably quite complicated and rooted in my past. I have asked myself questions; ‘why do I do this work?’, ‘what are my intentions?’ and also ‘does what I do really help?’ Similar to Andrew, I was also influenced by what other people thought I should be doing. And there was more than that; I had wish for fulfillment, approval and even a distraction from my own need for help. I know from experience that acting on these needs and intentions is stressful, tiring and also it lessens the likelihood that anyone is helped. I am not beating myself up here; I am simply recognising some of what has driven me in a particular direction and then wanting to change.

In my early days of working as a helper I frequently offered solutions, and proffered advice, therefore missing what was actually going on for that person because I wasn’t listening. By rushing to solutions I also made assumptions about thoughts and feelings, most probably wrong ones, again because of not listening.

Listening and the wish to help is a skill that requires awareness, not just of the other person but more especially of the self. Some years ago an excellent teacher described this as getting yourself out of the way. Isn’t this what meditation is all about? Are we not seeking to abandon our opinions and our personal points of view, ourselves?

In giving advice what we risk saying to the person is ‘you do not seem to be able to work this out for yourself’. Everyone has the capacity to learn and change and what really helps is being encouraged to talk, being listened to and trust that something happens when given this space to be with our koan ….. when we do our own practice.

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6 thoughts on “The Trouble with Advice”

  1. Well, I’d say that what one abandons is the tendency to _hold fast_ to ones views and opinions. So one abandons the holding fast to a _fixed view_ of what one regards as oneself. After all views and opinions are constantly changing and evolving. That we have them is not a problem, unless they are clearly un preceptual in which case one is not helping oneself. Yep, that’s what I have to say this evening – in brief.

  2. You do a good job, Adrienne, of describing the difficulties of giving and receiving advise. It’s so hard to avoid delivering or receiving “the helping hand that strikes again”!

    When Nancy and I were working with parent support groups, someone came up with an acronym for giving wise advise and I still find it helpful:

    W-are the people willing to hear the advise? Have they actually asked you for advise?
    I-are you informed enough about what is happening to them? Have you listened enough to their story?
    S-have you personally experienced success (or seen others be successful)in what you are suggesting?
    E-are you expressing your suggestion with empathy for their situation?

    More often than not, by the time I’ve run through this little mental checklist, whomever I’m listening to is well on their way to sorting things out themselves!

    In gassho, Jim

  3. Oh goodness Jim, that phrase says so much doesn’t it. Over the years that ‘helping hand’ has managed to remain in my robe pocket more and more. But it was really telling to hear myself giving my cousin advice on the road side, he ten years my senior too. I saw him actually acknowledge what I said though, which took me back a bit. Among frineds and relatives giving advice or what we would say ‘bossing somebody about’ is frequently a way of showing affection generally. It can backfire though.

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