DP Challenge – What’s the best piece of advice you ever gave someone else and didn’t take yourself?

I see the DP challenges all the time, like the rest of us Word Press junkies who are always checking our stats and trawling around the blog world – this one I couldn’t pass up.

I used to throw a statement out to my students when I taught undergrad courses in helping skills and communication – giving advice is an act of arrogance.

Students would invariably have a strong reaction to this statement – that was the point, and to be fair it is overstated in its absoluteness. But I was trying to get a discussion going and challenge the idea that helping – be it in a professional capacity or with friends and family – is about telling other people what they should be doing. Let’s be honest here – that is what advice usually amounts to.

I feel so strongly about this that it has crept into my novel. Here is a small excerpt from Disappearing in Plain Sight

Liam didn’t want to give Lisa-Marie advice. He believed most people roll out the advice-giving wagon without thinking about what they’re doing. It’s arrogant to imagine you can ever know what someone else should do. He had no idea if Lisa-Marie should take her shot with Justin. His twisting gut told him it was a mistake . . . . On the other hand, Liam’s gut was always twisting and he didn’t know for sure what other people felt or wanted.

There, in a nutshell, is my opinion on advice giving. We seldom know enough about another person’s situation to weigh-in with a – you should do this – type of statement. We think we do, but we don’t and therein rests the arrogance. The other person will be the one to live with the consequences of taking our advice – do we want that on our conscience? It’s far more productive to be a good listener and allow people to explore their own situation and feelings and come to their own decisions.

I often faced very heart-felt comments from students on how giving advice was what their whole idea of helping rested on – they had always been the one in their family and in their various relationships to tell others what they should do – people actually valued them for playing this role.

I would set up an exercise where students would sit with a partner and listen to this person speak for three uninterrupted minutes. Going into this exercise, most students felt it would be easy – after all it was a course on helping skills and improving communication and many students took the course because they were considering future work in a helping field. And after all – what is three minutes?

After the time was up, we would discuss how the listeners managed. Invariably they shared that they found it extremely difficult to just listen and not interject with advice or share their own experiences of a similar situation. They often said the three minutes seemed like forever.

Try this exercise yourself – most people will find it very difficult to listen to another person talk for three minutes. (I’m not saying stone faced listening here – active listening – giving the other person non-verbal positive feedback to keep them talking.)

OK – conclusion – what’s the best piece of advice I gave to others and didn’t take myself? Simple answer – don’t give advice! I’ve broken that advice so often I can’t even count the times. And I know better! There you go – true confession. My most notorious advice-giving has been with my grown children. And I’ll tell you this for free – giving unsolicited advice to your own kids is quite unproductive.

Oh what fools we mortals be . . .  and all of that.

My advice – try listening instead of telling other people what they should do. Oh, oh – there I go again, giving advice.




What is Friendship?

A couple of days ago Bruce and I were having a conversation that we’ve had many times over the nineteen years we’ve been together. It related to our concern about social isolation. We wondered if we have enough friends and connections and if we spend enough time maintaining such things. We discussed people we know who still keep in contact with friends they knew when they were in school. We wondered if there was something wrong with us. We concerned ourselves about all the people we’ve known over time and have been close to that we don’t have contact with anymore. We raked up their names like concrete symbols of our failure to live our lives according to some arbitrary standard – neither of us knew where this standard came from.

We then went on to rationalize our failure in the ways people often do. We are both introverts so that makes juggling a whole host of friends a challenge. Right now, family commitments – kids and grandkids – are our first priority. We have chosen a lifestyle that revolves around living in an out-of-the-way place – it’s expensive and time-consuming for us to visit other people and over the years we have seen that it takes a lot to get people out here to visit us. We’ve both moved around a bit in terms of jobs and interests so people have come in and gone out of our lives.

(I’ll add a small aside here – having this kind of conversation is indicative of the type of people we are and sometimes I think it is great we have things in common and sometimes I think how much better it would be if one of us could say to the other – let’s just stop trying to rip apart our lives and analyze everything to death, here – OK?)

What was exciting about this recurring conversation was that this time we had a revelation. One of us asked a simple question – why do we always assume that the only valid friendships are ones that have lasted for years? That question flipped the whole topic on end – why indeed?

We started to discuss vital friendships that had been situational – when we moved on from that situation we didn’t stay in contact with these people but that didn’t negate the validity of that friendship. Our ideas opened to all types of encounters that we felt were genuine and life-giving – we let go of the need to judge these encounters based on how long they had lasted. Bruce thought about the campesinos he worked with while volunteering at a cooperative in Mexico. I talked about students I’ve taught and clients I’ve had. We realized that all of these relationships count.

I recalled a wonderfully brief encounter I had with a man while touring around the fabulous balconies and gardens of the Hearst Castle during our recent trip to Southern California. We ran  into each other on a set of stairs and he told me, with great enthusiasm, that the Bougainvillea peeking around the corner was incredible – a must see. I responded with equal enthusiasm, thrilled to actually get the name of this fabulous vine that I had been seeing in glorious bloom all around Southern California. He pointed out a nearby magnolia tree. I said I had lived in Victoria, British Columbia for a while and there were some beautiful magnolias there, too. He talked of how the one in his yard was not doing half as well as this one was. I explained my curiosity to know the names of all of these beautiful plants by saying I’m a writer and I collect tidbits of information – you never know when you will need to include a Bougainvillea vine in a story. He responded with excitement – a writer, how wonderful. I told him I write a blog – he said tell me the name of it – I’ll find it and read it. We talked no more than 3 or 4 minutes at the most but it was genuine and my day was made better by this encounter. I hope his was, too.

Bruce and I discovered that what really matters to us is whatever pushes back the walls of isolation between people. Our conversation ended on that note and the more I think about it, the more I believe it to be true.

We live in a world where most people are busy – things are fast paced – we wonder how time can go by so fast and we bemoan all the things we think we should do that we aren’t doing. Maybe we miss the importance of the opportunities that are presented in the little chance encounters we have with real people in real-time – let’s believe they count, because they really do.

PS to the man I met at the Hearst Castle – if you did find my blog, I hope you enjoy this post!