Giving Advice

"Good advice is often a doubtful remedy, but generally not dangerous because it has so little effect."
- Jung

Weight Definition: giving advice is any kind of suggestion regarding a possible course of action for another person. Any form of evaluation is also implicit advice. "In your place I would ..." is advice. "Have you considered... ?" is also advice. Even, "Your husband is awful," is implicit advice. Note I am not saying advice is an unmitigated evil, to be avoided at all costs. I stop a little short of such a position. Since the temptation to give advice is often so powerful, it is something for a counsellor to keep careful watch over. I avoid giving advice on the phone only because I am constantly on guard against it. Of course, to say, "Your problem is you don't realise that ..." is also advice, since it is telling the other person how they should regard their own experience.

There is a thin line between information and advice. If a caller asks what their legal rights are, it is not giving advice to say they can find out by ringing a legal aid service. It would be advice if the counsellor suggested this unasked. It could be argued that this article itself is a load of advice giving. That may be so, but my subject is advice in the context of telephone counselling.

The greatest objection to giving advice is that people can solve their own problems. When they do so, they grow in self-esteem and confidence. Above all, they learn. Advice denies the autonomy of the other person and short-circuits the learning process. It represents an attempt to take a short-cut in the process of personal growth.

Not giving advice can test the counsellor's patience. Sometimes it seems as though, "If only they would realise that ..." and the caller's problem would be 'solved'. Famous last words. Such an attitude denies the meaning of the other person's experience. As trained counsellors, we have hopefully learned to avoid saying, "Just do this and your problem will be fixed." Yet our ego tempts us to jump in where angels ... give empathy instead. My belief is that a good counsellor is someone who can suppress their ego and put their opinions and reactions aside, for the duration of the call. In some cases, we are tempted to give advice because it is uncomfortable to endure another's pain. We naturally want to make it OK for them. We give advice in order to make ourselves feel better about another's situation. This is a reminder of the narrow line between empathy and sympathy, the difference between feeling with and feeling for, between stepping into someone else's shoes and doing up the shoelaces.

I have found that some callers are not aware of why they have called Telefriend. It may emerge that the actual problem is quite different from the one initially presented. Or, as often happens, they simply want to unload to someone. They may not want to solve a problem at all, despite appearances. I find that by giving the caller the space to move the call where they want, this affords them the freedom to discover what is really bothering them. It allows them to choose whether they want to look for solutions or merely to unburden themselves.

You can never know all the facts of another person's situation. "I think I know what the other person's problem is" is a presumption. It is their problem, not yours. Do not play rescuer - it requires a victim. As a person to whom troubled people turn to for aid, it is hard not to 'help'; but it does come with practice. Even if we did know as much about the problem as does the caller, it is still their life, which they need to live in their own way. We do not have the right to try to impose our own ideas and values. What is more, it cannot be done - you cannot change the beliefs and values of the other person during a telephone conversation.

One woman I spoke to was in a relationship she found unsatisfactory. She was torn between two views, "There's more to life than what I have," and another that countered, "But is there, and can I get it?"

In calls like this, and this one is fairly typical, I feel like saying, "Yes! You have a right to expect more from a relationship, more from life than what you have." But what right do I have to say this? I can't try to impose my conditioning and experience onto someone else, whose life is different to mine. Apart from that, it simply can't be done - I can't make them have my conditioning and beliefs. Yet it is so frustrating for me at times.

All of us are human, and no person has such great wisdom that they have the right to unequivocally tell others what to do.

Recently, a lady of 84 asked me repeatedly for advice on how to improve her relationship with her son. I said to her, "You have known your son for 60 years, I have not even met him, so how can I tell you how to talk to him?" I also pointed out the incongruity of my being 50 years younger and giving her advice. I had the strong impression she didn't want to make any effort to do something to get what she wanted: "So I'll just sit tight and put up with it." She admitted she had not invited her son to her place for a long time. I think I helped her more by confronting her a little than by making suggestions about how to approach her son.

The caller will often try to get you to give advice, and may be insistent about it. You can respond to this by asking them: "What could you do?" or "If you were a counsellor, what would you say?" If they answer, "I don't know", ask them what options they are aware of having. They might press you further with, "Well, what would you do in my place?" You could reply, "I am in a very different situation and I really cannot put myself into your place. You will need to live with the results of your decision, not I. We can explore options but I won't give you advice." Most callers seem to understand this is not a cop-out.

Not giving advice can be as frustrating for the counsellor as it is for the caller. It is OK to gently suggest an option the caller has not thought of, but not until you reach the problem-solving part of the call, and only after the caller has made a sincere effort to think their problem through. Don't be a party to their mental laziness. Some people get a lot out of acting helpless and confused. When they say "I don't know", this can mean, "You give me an answer". It is my opinion that no caller is so limited that they cannot think of two possible courses of action. Otherwise they would not be human but an automaton.

In the problem-solving part of the call - if it comes to that at all - role plays can be effective, particularly for relationship problems. This is because many interpersonal problems result from faulty or absent communication. The caller can rehearse what they want to say to the person they are having difficulty with in the safety of an anonymous phone call.

In my own life, I have found that good advice has not been all that useful to me, with some exceptions. I often felt it as a denial of my feelings. For instance, I experience the comment, "Don't worry about it," as particularly un-empathic, however valid I realise it to be on a rational level.

Yet advice can be useful. In The Hitchhiker's Guide, by Adams, when the hero is caught in an extremely nasty situation, he says to his companion, "I wouldn't be here if I had listened to my mother." "What did she tell you?" "I don't know, I didn't listen."

One time I did give advice was when a 19-year-old girl asked me whether she would feel better if she told her boyfriend about the sexual assault she had suffered. I was pretty sure that she would feel better, as the experience was tormenting her and creating a barrier between them. Having discussed his likely reaction with her, I told her I thought she would feel better. Perhaps in this instance I was justified in giving my answer.

When we give advice we act from a position of superiority. This is disempowering to the other person, for it implies we know more than they. They often feel advice as pushing or pressure, especially if it was not solicited. Advice actually disregards the caller's feelings - the opposite of empathy. People need to explore the feelings that are keeping them where they are before they can move on.

Another person's advice is external, not a part of the life skills assimilated by the caller. They will not take responsibility for it if it does not mesh with their own thinking. In any case they will not do something until they are ready. They are better off freely making their own decision rather than accepting another's view. They may take a step in a direction suggested by a counsellor, but their personality and values will tend to pull them back to their normal mode of action, so that the effect is likely to be very short term.

When one caller asked me what she should do, I countered with, "If I told you to do something, would you do it?" She admitted she wouldn't.

As further indication that giving advice is pointless, there is the case of one of my callers who had a particularly macho boyfriend. She told me she often gives advice to her friends when they are troubled. When she asked me for advice on whether to stay with her boyfriend, I turned this around by asking what advice she would give to herself. Her reply was immediate and impassioned: "Leave him because he is a prick!". In the next breath, she flatly refused to accept her own advice. So what would be the point of my putting forward an opinion? I would not have gotten into a situation like hers in the first place, nor do I understand why she wants to be with her current boyfriend. I could only give advice that is based on my own conditioning, which is different from hers.

A third example is provided by a friend of mine who is having relationship problems. How can I give her any advice about her relationship with a man, when the simple fact is I would never be attracted to having a relationship with someone like him in the first place? I would not want to get emotionally involved with someone who is so distant. So how can I advise her whether to stay with him or not? Although I know her for many years, I am unable to see things as she sees them, to view her life as it feels internally for her. In this respect we are all fundamentally alone, which is the human condition. The best I could ever do is to try to imagine how I would feel being in her place, but this would still be based on my conditioning and my attempt at empathy, and hence be of doubtful validity.

Then there was my memorable chess game against a particularly strong player, some fifteen years ago. I was losing badly and asked him what he would do in my position. His reply was highly instructive, though entirely unhelpful: "I wouldn't get into your position."

The same applies to the lives of my callers. In most cases I would not get into their situation. So how can I advise them? I hasten to add that this is not because I feel superior, only that my personality, my life, and my mistakes are different from theirs. An essential part of the Telefriend philosophy is to respect these differences.

Even when it seems that the caller is in a situation closely similar to one I have been in, I resist the temptation to assume that I know the answer, that what worked (or failed to work!) for me will also work for them. There may be a lot of similarity, but every situation and every person is unique, and this is a basic reason why we must each find our own way. Even if I were in an identical situation to that of the caller, I still would be different inside, and no person ever knows what it is like to be someone else.

If I see the caller in terms of my own autobiography then I am likely to be tempted to advise them. When I detect this is happening I try to step back in order to avoid this unconscious focusing on my own person. Stephen Covey gives an amusing example: A man having trouble with his eyes goes to an optometrist, who briefly listens to his complaint, takes off his glasses and says, "Put these on. I've worn them for years and they help me tremendously." The man tries them on but finds he can't see a thing. The optometrist asks, "What's wrong? They work great for me. Try harder."

Sometimes a caller wants me to give them permission to do something they would like to do, but have misgivings about. In such cases I make this explicit to them. The caller may not see their other options as being at all viable, and merely wants confirmation that there is only one course of action open to them. In this situation I think it is permissible to gently suggest alternatives.

But beware: when you make suggestions, this encourages the caller to play the "Yes, but ..." game. This is a frustrating diversion that exhausts the counsellor's resources long before the caller runs out of reasons for why things won't work for them. With no beneficial effect. All it does is confirm the caller's view that they cannot remedy their situation, since even a trained helper can't 'help' them.

One man complained he had been lonely all his life. When I suggested he try clubs and societies, he answered, "Been there, done that in 1958." He had done all kinds of things to meet girls, but nothing helped. Even at 'Parents Without Partners', with, as he put it, "hundreds of widows there", he couldn't find a woman. It seemed to me that as a counsellor, I needed to respect his inability or inner disinclination to form a relationship.

Then there was the elderly caller who was too bashful to tell a male friend how much she liked him. I tried to empathise, saying I sometimes find it hard to tell someone an uncomfortable truth. This prompted her to give me advice, saying I haven't grown to the point of being honest with people, but that there is still hope for me. My ego was hurt, but it quickly recovered. Ironically, the advice she gave me seemed amazingly like the course I thought she needed to take.

So far, I have managed to avoid quoting Rogers: "It is the client who knows what hurts, what directions to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been deeply buried. It began to occur to me that unless I had a need to demonstrate my own cleverness and learning, I would do better to rely upon the client for the direction of movement in the process."

After counselling for two years, these words acquire more and more meaning to me.

Tad Boniecki

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