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The Inadvertent Burden of Advice

A word about the gift we think everybody wants.... advice. A beloved friend has had an unimaginable loss.  Instantly, people around us step in with their best advice:

  • You should tell her to take time off from work.

  • You should tell her to get back to work.

  • She should join a grief group as soon as possible.

  • Tell her to travel on the holidays, it will be too hard at home.

The advice is plentiful. I know people mean well. It’s difficult to watch someone else suffer and most people genuinely want to help. In fact, we ourselves often long for the possibility that someone has an answer to our worries, troubles, or pain. Still, she’s overwhelmed by the advice, the volume, the expectations, the follow ups (”did that work for you?”), the unintended weight of it.

My friend’s loss is a huge example, but we see smaller instances of people drowning us in advice all the time as managers, colleagues and friends.

When a direct report says they spend their whole day in meetings with no time for themselves, you might say: "Why don’t you move to 20-minute meetings?"

A colleague bemoans a performance issue on her team, you may say: "You just need to give them more feedback."

Your family member complains about how long it’s been since she’s seen her dentist you say: "You have to take better care of yourself."

When I started working as a coach, one of the hardest things I had to unlearn was the habit of instantly hurling my hard-earned expertise and experience at someone I saw struggling. My inner thoughts were often: oh, I know just what to do here, or yes, I’ve seen this before – such that if I wasn’t careful, I wasn’t even listening to the person on the other side of the conversation, so sure was I that I knew what was coming and what to offer.

We don’t always need advice. The overuse of advice can interfere with our own sorting out and learning, and it can inadvertently train us to silence our own internal curiosity, capability, and knowing. Sometimes sitting in awkward, challenging or even painful moments is part of our healing and growth process. And unsolicited advice can deny us what we really need most in a moment: friendship, personal accountability, something new for dinner, a walking companion, or normalcy.

I’m reminded of helping organize visits from our work colleagues for a friend who was home after breast cancer surgery years ago. “If they’re going to tell me to eat more broccoli, put them on the bottom of the list for visits – I don’t want any more cancer advice. I just want to talk about regular things again.

What makes this difficult as the advice-giver is that when we’ve found something that has genuinely helped us, or even more, we’ve worked really hard on something like learning how to keep better boundaries, expressing ourselves more courageously, taking responsibility for our physical and mental health with good practices and helpful support, we think: well, I’ve arrived at something awesome, so I must share this. And in a spirit of generosity and helpfulness, we start telling other people what to do and think:

  • You really should go for a 30-minute walk every day before you sit at your laptop

  • You need to pursue work you love at all costs

  • You should just say “I can’t, my plate is full” to your boss

  • You can’t think about it that way…

It’s not that advice is never useful. It’s not that there is never a time for it. It’s just that unless we’re sure that someone wants and is ready for the advice, we may very well be missing the mark.

After years of learning how to be a more present coach, listener and friend, I’ll often ask: what’s the best way I can be of help or service to you right now? Or, what do you need most? Or, I have an idea of what might work here – is now a good time for that, or not?

I fell onto the idea of ‘discernment’ heavily in 2020, and I continue to lean into it again and again in my work, in my life, and as I witness and love my friend in her pain: What does she need from me right now? What’s the best way I can help and support her today? Does she need me to step in or step back right now?

I’m curious about you, how are you navigating advice-giving in your own work and life?


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