A helping hand or a slap in the face?

The same hand that helps can be used to hurt. Sometimes, despite our good intentions, we cause pain instead of relieving it. If a friend or acquaintance asks for advice, what should we do? Of course, it depends on several things, such as the nature of the problem, but one thing we should do is exercise caution by thinking before we speak. Let me give you an example that happened to me a mere week ago.

Joey is an acquaintance. I met him a couple of times before. I noticed that he was quiet and appeared calm. On one occasion, he joined a group of us for lunch. He spoke about his interests and appeared to be at peace with himself. Last week he came to me and said, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“Of course not. What is it?” I asked.

Joey calmly said, “How can I remove the painful memories I have of childhood abuse.” I then started giving him advice. This was my first mistake. I violated my own rule about thinking before acting. As soon as he said “childhood abuse,” I should have seen a red flag and offered him my sympathy and asked him to tell me all about it. Instead, because of his apparent calmness, I had mistakenly believed that Joey was now at a point in his life where he wanted some suggestions to help him move on and overcome his inner demons.

The suggestions I made were met with hostility and anger. Joey was no longer soft-spoken. He was raising his voice and using profanity (not at me, but at life in general). Despite his changing demeanor, I still thought he wanted advice, so I tried to explain how his anger was a hindrance, alienating others and isolating him, which only made matters worse.

Joey exploded. He was now ranting and raving at a fevered pitch. At last I saw what was going on. Joey didn’t want advice, he wanted a sympathetic ear. He needed validation. He needed to be told that it is okay to have such emotions. So, I finally shut up and let him vent his bottled feelings. By keeping my mouth shut and listening, here’s what I learned. Starting at the age of two, Joey was physically and mentally abused by his alcoholic mother and her live-in boyfriend. After years of abuse, he was finally taken from his mother and shuttled from institution to institution. What can be more painful than to be rejected by your own mother? Understandably, Joey was filled with rage. His anger got him labeled as a ‘trouble-maker.’ Instead of getting the sympathy he needed, he was met by further rejection.

After 40 years of rejection (he was now 42), he came to me in the hope that I would understand. Instead of receiving the helping hand he longed for, he got a slap in the face. The helping hand he wanted was a listening ear. The slap in the face was the ‘advice’ I gave. What’s so terrible about advice? Well, by offering it I was effectively saying, “Joey, you are defective. You are broken. I cannot accept you as you are. You need to be fixed. Here is what you need to do…” Of course, that was not my intention. But from the perspective of someone who had never received unconditional love, my advice was like pouring salt in his wounds of rejection.

Imagine seeing a starving child at the side of the road and saying to it, “Cheer up. Try to be positive. Have hope. Never give up.” Of what value is such advice? The child doesn’t need empty platitudes, he or she needs bread! It is only after the basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing are dealt with that the child can start working on a positive attitude and learn how to cope with the problems of life. In the same way, those who come to us for ‘advice,’ may really be coming for food for the spirit. They may be starving for acceptance, and it is only after experiencing it that they will eventually be ready to move on.

What’s the moral of the story? Here are some steps we can take to avoid slapping someone we really wish to help when they ask for advice.

1. Stop! Look! Listen! Think before you speak.

2. Listen to what they have to say. What are the circumstances? What are the issues that are troubling them?

3. What are the feelings being expressed? Anger? Resentment? Despair? Grief? Confusion?

4. What needs are being expressed? The need for acceptance? Recognition? Encouragement? Compassion?

5. Be empathetic. Put yourself in their shoes. Feel what they feel and you will be able to be a good friend.

Does this mean we should never offer advice? No, not at all. After all, no one lives long enough to experience everything, so we can be a big help to one another by sharing what we have learned. But when someone asks for our advice it is best to begin with the assumption that what they actually want is to get something off their chest. They don’t want advice; they want a friend. So, offer support by being quiet and listening.

What do you do if, after listening, your friend now says, “So, what do you think? What should I so?” Well, don’t jump in and offer advice. Why not? Your friend may have already reached a decision and merely wants to receive your blessing to go ahead. Your friend doesn’t need advice. He or she needs a friend and empowerment. They don’t need to be told what to do. They merely need some help in arriving at their own conclusions. Besides, isn’t it presumptuous to offer advice? It’s just like saying, “Look, you are too stupid or incompetent to figure this out for yourself, so let me solve your problem for you!”

So, the best way to ‘offer advice’ is to ask empowering questions that force the person looking for help to arrive at their own solutions. Remember, we act on what we believe is the best course of action, not on what we are told to do. So, ask your friend questions like, “What are your options? Can you think of any other options? Under the circumstances, which of those options would be the best to follow? What obstacles are you likely to meet when choosing that option? What would be the best way to overcome those obstacles?”

Following this path will make your friends think you are a genius. They will be in awe of the great ‘advice’ you shared when all you did was help them to make up their own mind. Before leaving them, you can let them know that if they survived this long without a solution, they probably can last another day or two. So, why not sleep on it before taking any action? It’s probably best to have a ‘cooling off’ period to prevent acting rashly.

If I had to sum up the points I made into a single sentence, I would probably say, instead of giving advice, let’s give ourselves. Isn’t that what friends are for?