The Trouble With Giving Advice

There are at least two potential problems with advice-giving. First, it attempts to move the person in pain prematurely forward to rational problem-solving. Most of us are aware that when in the grip of strong emotion, it’s difficult to think all that rationally, so it’s not really a good idea to consider solutions until after the emotions have been released and lessened in intensity. And if problem-solving precedes emotional support, feelings are likely to be pushed aside, triggering the multitude of problems associated with repressed anger (including depression, anxiety, and a host of physical ailments). Obvious exceptions should be treated with common sense. Sometimes the person coming to us with a problem is looking for a quick thought or feedback. Trying to engage that friend in a discussion about deep feelings would be unnecessary and ridiculous. If we’re not sure what our friend is seeking—listening or quick feedback—we should ask and then respond appropriately.

However, the careful observer will start to recognize that much of the time, probably most of the time, what people want from us is not advice, it’s understanding and sympathy. When I discussed this in one of my classes at BYU, one semester, a young man, Rick, raised his hand and said, “I finally get it.” He went on to tell about something that had puzzled him for years. When in high school, Rick dated Kristy for a while. Rick said that he always tried to be a great boyfriend. He would help Kristy take care of her car, filling it with gas, making sure the tires were good and properly inflated. He would wash and even detail the car every so often. Kristy’s school locker wasn’t opening well, so Rick fiddled with the mechanism and judiciously applied some WD-40 until it worked smoothly. He felt good about taking care of Kristy. Then one day, Kristy called Rick after school and was really upset. She and her sister had argued about something and Kristy was so hurt and angry that Rick could hardly understand her through her tears. When she paused for a breath, Rick tried to calmly and soothingly suggest how she could deal with the problem—he wanted to fix things for Kristy. Kristy interrupted him with a sharp and loud, “Don’t say anything! Just listen to me!” Rick held the phone a little distance from his ear as Kristy semi-shouted through her tears for maybe 20 minutes. Every once in a while, Kristy would pause and ask, “Are you still there?” Rick always replied, “Sure. I’m listening.” Then Kristy too a deep breath and asked, in a more normal tone, “So are you going to be home for a while?” Rick said he wasn’t going anywhere. About an hour later, Kristy showed up at his door with a huge plate of his favorite cookies and said, “You are the BEST boyfriend.” As Rick smiled wryly in our classroom, he said, “Till now, I never knew what I did right!”

Frankly, men are sometimes at a disadvantage in this area because their roles are so often about solving problems. Every job, when you think about it, is about solving problems and the better and quicker that the worker solves the problem, the more opportunity for reward and advancement. Even when a man comes home from work, he is often asked to take care of problems around the house. A husband may come home from work to be greeted by his wife with, “My car isn’t starting very well.” She probably doesn’t want him to respond with, “Well, how do you feel about that, dear?” She wants him to take care of it, to solve the problem. So another day he comes home to an upset wife who says, “My mother called today and she makes me so upset I can’t stand it!” He may automatically jump in to solve the problem with something like, “Well, don’t take her calls any more.” His wife may get even more upset: “Don’t tell me not to talk to my mother! I can’t do that. Why would you even suggest such a thing?” And now the husband scratches his head in confusion, thinking, “I’m just trying to help with her problem. Why is she mad at me, now?”

While men seem to be the most likely to immediately jump to problem-solving, women also struggle with this automatic response. Whether full time at home taking care of children and family, all day, or whether in a work setting, women get used to solving problems, also. If we really want to become better and more effective resources for helping others process their feelings, we need to stop problem solving and start listening to and accepting feelings.

NOTE: The above is an excerpt from the new book I am writing on dealing with anger.

AND–I apologize for not posting for the last couple of weeks. We were out of town for 12 days and I returned home sick, so catching up has been even more challenging than usual. Thanks for reading.