In our talk-centric culture, opinions are exchanged as unconsciously as oxygen molecules. Many people apparently enjoy conversations that more closely resemble ping-pong matches than genuine inquiry. For some, offering advice is a compulsive habit. Regardless of whether anyone is interested, they are like fountains that gurgle their viewpoints on humans within hearing distance or on social media. But many folks, even non-gurglers, often respond to another adult’s declarative statement with a piece of advice, imagining that the statement was a green light to offer it. It’s how we’ve been conditioned to communicate. But, what if the statement was an invitation to simply listen, acknowledge, appreciate or explore further?
From the perspective of this introvert, the cultural tendency to offer unsolicited if not gratuitous advice feels like a communicable disease, one to which I’m trying to build immunity. I wasn’t always like this. In my twenties, long before I discovered the practice of reflective listening, friends sought me out to share confidences. Then, I imagined they wanted me to “solve” their “problems”. A few women complained how their boyfriends weren’t treating them kindly or lamented that they (the gals) weren’t in love with these boyfriends. No one heeded my advice, which I offered out of care, to find worthier partners. They married these same men. Years later, I realized they hadn’t been looking for advice, just to be listened to by a person they trusted. But, in our culture, if someone shares something painful or is conflicted, we often believe we must offer words in return, when all we need to do is be present.
It’s not easy to sit quietly when someone we care about is having trouble; it’s challenging not to feel their difficulties as our own, and frustrating if they don’t live the way we might imagine for them. To ameliorate our discomfort and maybe feel good about ourselves for being “helpful”, we offer advice rather than open to the uncertainty of the moment. That complete acceptance, however, is precisely what allows a situation to transform itself. Unsolicited advice can backfire rather than benefit, by implicitly suggesting that the present moment is problematic and needs to be fixed. And, no matter how much empathy we might feel, it’s not our responsibility to resolve another person’s conundrum or crisis. As my Zen teacher likes to say, “Each person is adequate to their life experience.” We don’t need to paper over the situation with words, just offer the person love and support, perhaps in the form of a kind deed (that meets their needs, not ours) or a non-judgmental ear, as long as we are willing. By no means must we remain infinitely available to chronic kvetchers or others who lament a situation without attempting to change or transcend it.
Even in less complicated matters, unsolicited advice can impede connection or conversation. Imagine someone casually mentions they are planning a trip to Europe, but they don’t explicitly ask for input. What would be more conducive to conviviality if not connection, rattling off a list of places they absolutely “must”, “gotta” or “should” visit, or asking them what inspires their trip? Maybe their response will steer the conversation in a surprising way. Say they intend to visit small scale cheese makers and have no interest in art. Might it be preferable to avoid bombarding this person with the locations of favorite Renaissance paintings and having them respond with awkward silence, as if they’ve just been addressed in a foreign tongue? I believe that if adults want advice, they will explicitly ask for it.
Still, despite my awareness of such pitfalls and my own visceral aversion to unsolicited advice, when I care about someone or believe passionately in what they are doing, the temptation to offer input can feel as urgent as a call from mother nature. It can be difficult, excruciatingly painful even, to hold it in, especially if I am convinced my suggestion will help. And my advice might even be great, but if I deliver it with too much ego wrapped up in it, they are less likely to receive it. As I keep learning, it’s more rewarding to risk authenticity than to offer unsolicited advice. Letting someone know how much I care about them or how much their work means to me may have more of an impact on their choices or behavior, and even their willingness to solicit advice in the future, than the most well considered guidance or brilliant plan. And if our hypothetical person is about to burst from the need to share hard-won travel tips, a self-revelatory comment such as, “Art might not be your thing, but seeing Van Gogh’s work brought me to tears,” might communicate their passion more effectively than insisting the traveler “must see” the Van Gogh Museum.
One of the best compliments, I find, is when people seek out my advice or opinion. Still, before opening my mouth or composing an e-mail, I have to remind myself to offer it freely, like blowing bubbles, without knowing whether it will pop in mid air, float off, or be absorbed somehow. If I feel a strong attachment to them acting upon my advice, I’m likely projecting an unmet need of my own. It’s a signal for me to ask my wiser self, or someone else, for advice on how to either meet that need or let go. Meanwhile, imagine what our world would be like if offering unsolicited appreciation, rather than advice, were the norm.