Listen Well to Advise Well

When facing an important decision about relationships and other personal issues, it’s often best to consider your own advice first. After all, who’s better suited to know what’s right for you than … you?

Recently, I spoke with a friend who regretted breaking off a relationship. “It’s my own fault,” she said. She had listened to her friends’ opinions and chose to give them more weight than her own. When she asked my opinion, I just told her to do what she thought was right, and to let it play out. It’s better to make your own mistakes and learn from them than to do what may or may not be the right thing in blind obedience to others.

When following advice, it’s also important to consider the source. If someone gives me advice, I generally assume they have my best interests at heart. But remember that the advice-giver can only tell you what he or she would do in that situation. There are two problems with that: First, we can’t always know for sure what we’ll do unless we’re in that position. Second, just because I might make a certain decision doesn’t mean you should too.

Be wary if someone takes it upon him- or herself to suggest a specific course of action regarding something important. You don’t have to immediately assume they don’t mean well, but you do have to accept that he or she is, in effect, asking you to renounce your own judgment. Sometimes the best role to play in these situations is that of a “sounding board.” Many years ago I talked with a friend about whether I should go to psychotherapy school or law school. Interestingly enough (I will always remember this), she never told me what to do. She just said, “It sounds like what you’re really most passionate about is therapy. I don’t hear the passion from you about law school.” Rather than telling me what to do, she simply fed back what she honestly heard. And she was right.

One of the biggest causes of anxiety and depression is self-doubt. We spend all of our time with our own mind and then we don’t trust it! The purpose for seeing a psychotherapist is not to find someone to tell you what to do. You can get that for free from just about anybody. Real help, professional or not, consists of finding someone who will listen carefully to you and offer feedback. You might be saying contradictory things, or wanting two things that are incompatible. Your “sounding board” will most probably see this before you do.

There’s lots of information out there about how to give or take advice, and some of it is actually good. Uzi Weingarten, an expert on “Communicating with Compassion,” recommends three things when giving advice: (1) listen first, (2) ask permission, and (3) offer without insisting. This makes sense. The advice-giver should care about the advice and about the person to whom he/she is offering it, but there should be no other agenda. In a way, it’s like searching for the truth. “Here’s the truth as I see it, and here are the facts and reasoning that back up what I think.” When advice-givers haven’t thought-out their reasoning (or maybe even have a hidden agenda), they’ll try to replace reasoning with pressure and coercion. If you sense that, be suspicious!

Sometimes it’s not even advice we want or need. Friends and clients often tell me, “Thanks for giving words to what I wanted to do in the first place.” A good listener possesses the skill to clearly summarize the essential points and then offer a constructive short-cut to an effective resolution. There’s a lot of value in a friend or a professional who knows how to NOT tell you what to do! He or she helps clear the path for you to consult your own head — and then pay attention to what it has to say.


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