Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Advice Regarding Advice

Advice. People have been giving and receiving advice ever since the first human beings arose on this earth. There are people more than willing to offer their opinions on a host of topics regarding what one should think and do, and others more than happy to receive said opinions. They can be opinions on major life decisions, or a simple task now in process over the next five minutes, and everything in between.

Structurally, there are two sources of advice available to us: “Institutional Advice,” and “Individual Advice.” Institutional Advice comes from three principal providers: Government, though its constitutions, laws and regulations; Religion/Church, through its formal dogma, rituals, and sacred writings; and Culture/Society, through its codes of acceptable conduct within one’s group. We may not think of these institutions as true “advice givers,” but rather as the necessary and acceptable mechanisms for holding group societies together. But given that – for better or worse – humans can accept or deny these various institutional rules, and decide whether to follow them or not regardless of any societal punishments, then realistically all of these institutional expectations are ultimately simply advice from which we make our life choices.

Then there are the more familiar Individual Advice Givers. They are the friends, family, sometimes even strangers who give us their perspective on some issue or activity with which we are engaged. The fundamental goal is to help the Advice Receiver find from within him-/herself the solutions and decisions appropriate to him/her; it is all about Self-discovery. When done well and with purity of intention, such advice can be very helpful to us as we plod our way through our daily lives. For the Advice Giver, it can be personally satisfying that one’s experiences and opinions have some value worth sharing, and satisfying to know that one has been helpful to another human being. For the Advice Receiver, the ability to share one’s burdens, and having the benefit of wider experiences from which to draw, can ease the burden of one’s personal decision-making. But when done poorly and with impurity of intention by either party, advice can make our already complicated and difficult life even more problematic; a potential gift from the emergence of one’s latent creativity may be forever lost. There are four key scenarios that disrupt well-intentioned and effective giving and receiving of advice, and can in fact create personal friction in the relationship between Giver and Receiver.

1. Receiver: “What would you do [in this situation or problem]?” What I would do if facing your challenges is speculation on my part, because I am not actually facing your very real challenges in your very real circumstances. So my imagined solutions would be theoretical at best. My desired outcomes are not necessarily appropriate to your aspirations. The real question is, what are you trying to accomplish? What I think I might do is irrelevant to your decision-making, other than perhaps illustrating some options that you might consider for yourself.

2. Receiver: “What would you do if you were me?” or Giver: “If I were you I would …”: I am not you. My life experiences, goals, priorities, and circumstances are different than yours. My current situation may have similarities with yours, but overall our lives are significantly different. Without strong restraint, I will wind up describing what I would do for ME, not you. The best I can do in this scenario is to surround my reply with full disclosure of how I reached that conclusion for me. Thereby, you can determine whether my decision considerations and objectives have any relevance to your aspirations and concerns.

3. Receiver: “What should I do?” I do not know. I cannot possibly know. What I do know is that this question turns the conversation on its head. It effectively allows the Receiver to surrender control and responsibility for making his/her own personal decisions. We each have to make our own call in response to the challenges we encounter. We each need to take advantage of the opportunities for personal growth, maturity, and learning that come with making and assessing our decisions. As tempting as it may be in the moment, those opportunities are lost when the Receiver avoids the decision and leaves it to others to determine instead.

4. Giver: “You should ...” The two killer words in any advice discussion. Nothing of real value comes from any words that follow after. The Giver has moved from a position of “helper” to one of control, of dominance over the Receiver. In turn, the Receiver has moved either into a position of subservience towards “going along with the should,” or defensiveness in order to retain the integrity of his/her Self. This is no longer a conversation, but a lecture. It is not to be mistaken for advice, but rather a treat for the ego of the Giver.

There is one check that is helpful to measure whether our intention as an Advice Giver is in its proper place. When we give advice, it is critically important that we detach ourselves from the advice itself. That we retain no sense of expectation or judgment as to whether the Receiver takes our advice or not. We were asked for our thoughts and opinion. We gave same. If we take personally the Receiver’s ultimate decision, and are miffed if s/he goes another direction, then we know that we actually attempted to make the conversation about us, not the Receiver. The goal was for us to be humbly helpful to another in their struggle by finding where their heart and mind are leading them. It was not supposed to be about our own wonderfulness, the superiority of our knowledge and supposed wisdom, and our life instead of theirs.

Which brings us to the final overriding and cautionary axiom for Advice Givers: THE WORST ADVICE THERE IS, IS UNSOLICITED ADVICE. Advice giving is a response function, not a self-initiated function. Sometimes the best advice is to say nothing at all, but to just listen; minding our own business can often be the best advice we can offer. Often, what people really want is just to be heard. If our egos really call us to offer advice not requested, then we would do well to at least first ask the permission of the Receiver as to whether s/he wants it.

This is my unsolicited Advice Regarding Advice.

(With thanks to a special meditation group for stimulating this essay.)

©    2021   Randy Bell