Some advice on… giving advice!

A little while back, I was called by a journalist to offer some pearls of wisdom on the subject of giving advice (you have to hand it to these magazines for fitting BIG subjects into itty bitty articles…).

The premise for the article was to give guidelines for the reader to follow when asked for advice whatever the issue is, from a bereavement or illness to a missed promotion.

Now the article is published and out (Top Sante, June 2011, p75), but my contribution has been edited down, so I thought I’d share with you, at more length, the thoughts I’d had for the piece. To avoid the clumsy he/she stuff, I’ve plumped for the girls this time, but it’s equally applicable for guys (sorry guys – don’t take it personally!):

  • Most important of all – is your friend actually asking for your advice? It may be that you feel a need to ‘fix’ the situation and that you feel you need to give your two pennyworth but it could be that she simply wants to rant/vent/cry/be listened to. Stay quiet. Stay strong. Make tea. Make more tea. Trust the healing power of silence and resist the urge to fill in the gaps with talk. Your presence is needed, not your words. If you want to do something, give her a hug (if this comes naturally and it’s appropriate of course). Be a rock for her to cling to in a stormy sea, not another wave battering her with opinions and advice. She IS asking for advice? OK then, the following should help (but err on the side of silence if in doubt…):
  • There’s a great quote I heard recently (though I can’t find any attribution for it): “A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you’ve forgotten the words.” In a crisis, it can be easy to lose ourselves among the drama. Remind your friend of her strengths, qualities and the values she stands for, e.g. ‘I know you’re feeling low right now, but you light up in a group – shall we invite some of the girls and go for a night out?’, ‘It’s really sad about your redundancy. A very good job you’re such a natural networker – that’ll really come in handy now’, ‘I know starting your own company feels like a big risk but you’re determined and a real hard worker and I know you can do it’. Think of a time they triumphed over adversity before and drop it in to the conversation.
  • …but don’t remind her of past failures or point out negative traits ‘Move jobs? But you’re rubbish with change, remember?’, ‘well you COULD move in with him, but don’t freak him out like you did with the last one’
  • If appropriate, offer to role play the boss / boyfriend / hairdresser / interviewer so that she can vent / practice what she wants to say.
  • If you’re burning to suggest a course of action, frame it as an option for her, i.e. ‘have you considered…’ or ‘here’s a thought…’; not ‘if I were you..’ or ‘you should’, which is just imposing your viewpoint and not honouring her choice of action.
  • In a situation where there are two or more possibilities for action and your friend can’t decide, ask her to imagine she has taken each option in turn and to notice what has changed and how she feels. Sometimes, it’s easy to get stuck at a ‘before the decision’ point, and changing the view can make a big difference.
  • Encourage her to use her network, and suggest anyone from yours if appropriate. ‘Who do you know who…?’ questions can reap big rewards in all sorts of situations.
  • In a bad situation, gently ask her if there are any silver linings to this cloud – what opportunities could arise now? For instance, losing out on that job could be just the push she needs to pursue her dream of striking out on her own and starting that company she always dreamed of.
  • Never, ever, EVER gossip about your friend’s situation or her reaction to it. It’s nobody’s business but hers, and she trusts you enough to share it with you. That does not give you the right to share it with others and it will always destroy the trust and good feeling that you have built up between you.
  • Remember that your friend is strong and capable. Hold her in that space, even if she’s feeling fragile right now. Remind her of her resourcefulness and let her take all the credit for the success she goes on to have (even if it was your suggestion…;-))
  • Finally, don’t be discouraged if your friend doesn’t change or cheer up, despite your best advice and distraction efforts. You can’t ‘fix’ another person, you can only be there for her whilst she works things out for herself, and that might be on a totally different timescale from the one you had in your head. Ultimately, everyone is responsible for their own actions (and that includes whether or not they follow your advice).


Some advice on… giving advice! — 2 Comments

  1. What a useful article, Claire. It’s always so good to be reminded that ‘just’ listening can be so vital. Easy to get caught up in advice giving and fail to really hear. Thank you for all your great tips to help! I’ll look forward to reading more 🙂

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