Advice is highly toxic material to be handled with care

Humorist Henry Alford in his social etiquette book Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That? describes giving advice as an every day unpleasantry “we commit each day” that we wish others around us would stop doing.

Giving advice feels great. How often do we have such crystal clear clarity? Usually, however, such lucidity is a false promise of knowing and our advice ill suited. It’s not uncommon to have it followed up by the proverbial sound of crickets or an impish, “Oh yeah, I should have thought of that.” Pause. “Thanks.”

Sometimes, however, our advice is pretty good. Your friend is in a deep hole of a relationship he should have quit a long time ago. Your parent’s low energy level is not just age but low kale intake. In fact, the solution to this person’s problem is pretty obvious. It’s backed by MAJOR research and best-selling memoirs. Shouldn’t we be sharing advice when it’s so good?

I don’t recommend it. Even good advice is usually bad to give when people are being emotionally vulnerable with us. Like chemotherapy, it’s medicine that has some pretty bad side effects. Tough times can make us feel pathetic. Insouciantly issued life-fixes make it even worse. Like dolling out an F grade in life-class 101 it says you can’t even get the grieving of this thing right.

The best remedy to someone’s hard time is akin to the medical field’s Hippocratic Oath “do no harm”. In this instance, that means holding your tongue and simply listening to someone’s tale of difficulty. You resist the problem solving. Resist feeling smart and “fixing” it. What to do instead? Embrace the awkward silence.

Social scientists name this conscious resistance socio-emotional regulation. I call it good manners. Whichever hook works, just do it. It will get easier over time.

Except in the case when it doesn’t.

Because your loved one’s personal trial is so consuming that there is no room for you in the relationship anymore. And it’s frustrating. What’s more, you hate pretending that your friend isn’t unraveling. And you hate avoiding their phone calls so that you don’t have to. You just want to set them straight and get your loved one back.

Here’s the crux of thing:

The inroad to this challenge is not with the advice you have about your friend’s problem.

It’s with where your heart is.

And that is about how you are feeling with your relationship.

It’s scary even thinking about it, isn’t it? Saying what’s hard for you instead of saying what someone should do.

And the hard truth of it it is its a far more trust worthy place to begin.

Here’s a chart to lay out:

Impulse

Action

Tempted to give advice Don’t and exercise restraint
Tired of listening to it Don’t and be patient
About to end the relationship over it Talk about what’s hardest to say: how you are feeling about your relationship

This is all so much tougher than giving advice.

But really listen to your friend and you’ll hear something far more captivating than the sound of crickets or the empty echo of your own brilliance. It’s made entirely of one of our most crowning human achievements: harmony.

Bear with the silence. Soon enough, you’ll come to enjoy its music.