Why do we ask for advice, support, and guidance from our loved ones? What are our motiviations in doing so, and what are our expectations of the feedback we will receive? Are we seeking actual guidance, a difference in perspective, or simple support in doing what we have to do, regardless of its palatability?
In the May/June 2010 issue of Psychology Today’s Editor’s Note Advice Wanted (Approval Preferred) Kajia Perina discusses what we’re really looking for when we ask for advice.
Advice Wanted (Approval Preferred)
What We Really Seek When We Ask for Advice
BAD ADVICE is tricky business, My favorite canards include the idea that everyone needs grad school and that it’s best to ignore people who make difficult requests because they will eventually “forget” the matter (so far, recollection clocks in at 99 percent). Bad advice has a high pass-along rate, and not only as anti-advice and eye-rolling fodder. […]
The paradox of advice is that the more specific the directive, the more overbearing it may feel. It’s one thing to tell someone, “Take the job” and another entirely to say, “Here’s how to open yourself to opportunity so that you can figure out what job to take!’ PT has no qualms about giving such open-ended directives in Go Ahead, Obsess! and Make Your Own Luck. But color-coded roadmaps exist only in children’s board games. In the past, I most fervently sought advice in instances when I already knew what was required, but balked at doing it. Inevitably, hearing a range of opinions only blurred my instincts. Now, before I hit “send” or pick up the phone, I ask myself what I’m avoiding, I’ve learned not to be so quick to request or offer counsel. And when asked to weigh in, I try to take my cues from good therapists, who claim not to give explicit directives, even as they encourage the process of self-discovery.
Does it always work? Not according to my husband. Let’s just say that I take the non-advice stance under advisement.
Evan Marc Katz, dating coach and author of the Ask Evan dating advice blog agrees with Perina’s sentiment. In Do You Want Advice or Do You Want Validation?, his advice to men listening to their female loved ones talk about their problems is
[T]o listen to her until she’s done, and then ASK her if she’s open to hearing his thoughts. By getting her permission after a venting session, she knows he’s fully “heard” her and that he has nothing but her interests at heart. And if she doesn’t want to hear his thoughts, then that says a lot about what she sees her friends for: blank sounding boards designed to tell her what she wants to hear, as opposed to what she needs to hear.
My experience matches the thoughts of both authors. The line between advising and directing someone is fine and migratory . . . The differentiation can seem random and almost malicious depending upon whom the petitioner and the petitioned are, especially when differing fundamental perspectives or levels of emotional investment are present. An Evangelical Christian and an agnostic are not likely to have the same beginning perspective on out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and the secret-crush-having best friend is likely too emotionally involved when the crush-target has romantic troubles.
I’ve found the keys to effective decision-making collaboration are for each party to try to be as clear as possible with their feelings, motivations, and possible conflicts of interest as well explaining the reasons behind the questions and answers. “I’m asking if I should take the job because I’m conflicted between professional advancement and leaving my family behind,” and “I say you should consider leaving him because he makes you doubt yourself,” are vastly more effective, efficient, and non-dictatorial than “Should I take the job?” and “Just leave him!” The second versions invite room for discussion of the root issues, show respect for the other’s agency, and alleviate the possibilities of “I told you so-s” and blaming bad outcomes on other people.
An even more effective method of providing advice and support is Perina’s open-ended question tactic. Even though it’s difficult to master and during emotionally-charged times likely to occur only if reflexive, I have experienced good results using it the handful of times I’ve been able to maintain emotional distance and objectivity long enough to employ it.
One of my greatest failures was keeping my best friend from marrying the big steaming bowl of crazy that was his girlfriend. This chick had it all: drug dependency, self-damaging behavior, awe-inspiring co-dependency, mental issues, and a way of making my best friend feel like he was king of the world while simultaneously breathing oxygen into the embers of his own mostly-controlled chemical abuse tendencies and ever-present feelings of narcissistic grandiosity. My firebrand tactics were clarity, animation, drama, color, and volume. Subtlety was not on the list. Screaming matches, thrown objects, dire predictions, tears, exhortations, threats, and violence were each a part of my escalating separation cavalcade.
I was convinced that if he didn’t leave her, their tornadic sprial could only end in one or both of them dead or in the execution chamber. All of his friends thought the same things I did, but I was the only one with the balls to say anything to him. My desperation mounted as my attempts to convince him of the obvious failed, and my tactics grew larger, bolder, and more in-his-face. If I could only make him understand the ultimate truth screaming in my brain, consuming my soul, he would save himself: I know you better than you know yourself, and you are NOT yourself anymore! Bail! I am afraid you are going to die!
Watching someone you love speed down a mountain, in slow motion, without brakes, and without fear breaks your heart. I was willing to break his to separate them. I was literally willing to lose him forever to save him from himself. I loved him so much that I was willing to sacrifice our relationship on the altar of his safety. His wellbeing was more important to me than our relationship.
God help me, I made a huge mistake for the best possible reason.
Needless to say, I went about smacking sense into his head the wrong way. All I succeeded in doing was building an emotional Berlin Wall between us. Trying and failing to haul the most important person in the world to me out of an abusive relationship that he couldn’t see for what it was is the single most galling failure of my life. The time came when we each realised that we couldn’t handle the drama anymore: his conviction that I was trying to ruin something good in his life for reasons of jealous possession, my refusal to watch him destroy himself. We cut off contact for a year. I anxiously waited for word that my predictions came to pass.
Eventually, the call came. A after quite a bit of emotional damage, he had hauled himself out of the marriage by divorce and amputated her from his life, for which I regularly thank God. Only after he left her did he come back to me for guidance and support in reassembling his mind, rediscovering his personality, and reorienting his life. I’m still flattered that he found his way back to me, but I’m also still disturbed that he even had to. That I put him in the position where he had to.
He’s forgiven me, but I cannot yet forgive myself.
When your loved ones come to you for guidance, support, and advice, provide it in a productive way. Figure out what it is they actually need, then give it to them. Validation, pespective, support, a target to vent, something else entirely. Work on the techniques in advance if you can so that you can do good in this world.
Take it from me, you’ll save not only them from damage, you’ll save yourself as well.