Giving advice to someone who may be struggling, or stuck in that maelstrom of an unresolved situation, comes naturally, and often unconsciously for many of us. Before you know it, out pops your opinion and well-intentioned, ‘just do_____’. Sometimes we even follow up with our analysis of why our advice is really good, thorough and perhaps worked for us or someone we knew. Yes, we care and want to express it…we care a lot about the other person and the discomfort they may be in…but advice is usually not what they need. Believe me, they have already considered and heard a lot of advice! What we can offer in a much more powerful and effective way, is our presence, our listening and our empathy of what it may be like to be in this stuck or dark place.
‘My misgivings about advice began with my first experience of clinical depression thirty-five years ago. The people who tried to support me had good intentions. But, for the most part, what they did left me feeling more depressed.
Some went for the nature cure: “Why don’t you get outside and enjoy the sunshine and fresh air? Everything is blooming and it’s such a beautiful day!” When you’re depressed, you know intellectually that it’s beautiful out there. But you can’t feel a bit of that beauty because your feelings are dead — and being reminded of that gap is depressing.
Other would-be helpers tried to spruce up my self-image: “Why so down on yourself? You’ve helped so many people.” But when you’re depressed, the only voice you can hear is one that tells you that you’re a worthless fraud. Those compliments deepened my depression by making me feel that I’d defrauded yet another person: “If he knew what a worm I am, he’d never speak to me again.”
Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.’
From The Gift of Presence, The Perils of Advice by Parker Palmer
So why can it be challenging to ‘just be present’?
- Our survival brains are naturally wired to ‘solve the problem and avoid discomfort’
- We can be uncomfortable with the sense of powerlessness we ourselves feel when we hear someone’s struggle and can then quickly and unconsciously seek to help ourselves feel in control and more comfortable by giving some well intentioned advice.
- Often the recipient of our advice, needing and appreciating our relationship, will say gracious words back not wanting to hurt OUR feelings. And then all of a sudden the advice giver is the one being taken care of!…oops
- Most of us were not raised in families/cultural or work situations where we got the message ‘Take your time to consider all the options’, ‘uncomfortable feelings are a part of life’, ‘I’m here for you with all your struggles’.’
Being present and allowing yourself to share and feel some of that discomfort another feels is a cultivated art and takes practice and intentionality. And the rewards are huge…give it a try and in the meantime watch this short and ‘to the point’ video by Brene Brown.