“Human presence is a creative and turbulent sacrament, a visible sign of invisible grace”. John O'Donohue

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Take My Advice...

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I love this Dilbert cartoon.  When I had a 'proper' job (one in an office 😉) I used to keep the Dilbert calendar on my desk and every day's cartoon spoke the laugh out loud truth of work and relationships. Cartoonists are some of the most insightful people, and they - mostly -  get to say things that the rest of us don't because they are funny (Before you tell me about Charlie Hebdo, yes, I know!) 

But that's not what this blog is about. I want to talk about advice.

There is a saying that I love to use which is "Take my advice. I'm not using it!" ( attributed to several people if you Google it. I am not sure it's original)

As I get older (and wiser?) the amount of advice I offer has diminished. Not because I have particularly mastered the art of communication -  although that has equally improved over time - but because my tolerance for receiving advice has also diminished.  I now rarely ask for, or give advice, because it is rarely well received, rarely followed and actually, generally rarely appropriate. Opinions, if requested, maybe. Gentle questioning, yes. A listening ear, definitely. But advice, no. I began to realise that often when people were offering me advice, it was more about what they needed, than what I needed. And I was just as guilty. 

We have all heard the words "What you should do is..."  or "What you need to do it..." or "If I were you I would..." and we all know what our reaction is. Telling anybody that they should do anything rarely works. Because our automatic response as human beings is to resist being controlled. And shoulds are very likely to be received as words of  control rather than kindness, even if kindness was the intention. Even if you know you should do something, being told that you should will probably not work. What we all need as human beings, in order to really make changes that are worthwhile, is compassion and empathy. With ourselves and with others. 

Dilbert might go a little far in suggesting that it is ego an ignorance disguised as helpfulness, but in some ways, he has a point.  Unless advice is sought or asked for, then it is probably coming from a place of something not entirely based on helpfulness.  We might really believe we are being helpful. When we think  "Oh look - a person doing something wrong - let me offer them some advice."  Who are we trying to help? Them, or ourselves? Whose need is being met? Is it the other person's? Or is our need to help them, or control the situation?  It took me a long time to get honest about this, and I still slip up. 

From the outside, it might look like a person's situation or problem is really clear cut. The temptation to offer advice is really strong when it looks like an obvious or simple solution is at hand. But human beings are a complex mess of emotions. Tied up in a person's circumstances are their feelings. And as much as it would be much easier if they weren't feeling those feelings, that isn't how any of us function.  Being really helpful is to respond to both the feelings, and to address the unmet needs that are underlying them. When that happens, then solutions often just emerge. Changing the  "What you need is..." to "What do you need?"  is a simple and powerful shift. 

"When it comes to giving advice, never do so unless you've first received a request in writing, signed by a lawyer."   - Marshall B. Rosenberg - founder of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) 


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