3 Questions to Ask Before Offering Advice

Her Facebook post was meant to be humorous, not a solicitation for advice. Instead, a comedic head-nod to all the new-year weight-watchers who were already weary of salad. Which was just about everyone.

advice

Thus she posted a hilarious quip from her recent class on weight and healthy living. A way to diffuse her very real and ongoing battle against weight and help fellow strugglers to find a little laughter along the way.

I smiled when I saw it. She’s one of my funniest friends, always finding the quirky moments in everyday life. I love the way she tells the truth about her weight journey, how she faces the rollercoaster of it with raw honesty and characteristic humor. I’ve watched her fight her battle over many years, and I know from our close friendship how difficult it truly is, how it has defined her life in many ways. And although she longs for it to be easier, for the weight to fall off and the fight to end, it continues.

She anticipated soliciting a few laughs. What she didn’t anticipate, however, was the rapid-fire of pointed advice:

Have you tried …?

How about ….?

You should buy, use, do THIS …

And my personal favorite:

I am a consultant for __________, and I’d love to sell you our ___________________!

As I read the responses, I welled up with frustration and anger on her behalf. I know they were trying to help. I know they meant well and truly believed they could make a difference in her battle.

Even so, it didn’t help.

And it didn’t make a difference—at least not a positive one.

Instead, all that advice only made her feel less understood. And more alone.

She didn’t need her friends to FIX her. She needed her friends to BE WITH her.

But being with someone in their struggle isn’t easy. It requires us step into their suffering, to feel something of their pain, to empathize and allow the battle to impact us in some small measure. That’s why we resort to fixing. Because fixing keeps us from feeling. And fixing makes us believe, however falsely, that we’re beyond the touch of that particular struggle.

I’ve experienced more than my share of well-meaning advice-givers—online and in person—trying to cure me. Nearly every time I post a picture of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, some good-hearted soul sends me a long message urging me to please, please, please stop eating sugar or I am going to cause my cancer to come back. From their perspective, they believe they’re saving my life. Thus, their urgency and boldness.

But behind their advice lies a sinister implication: Your cancer is your fault. If you would just do what I do, you wouldn’t be in this mess. 

Cancer and obesity aren’t the only ills at which we throw our advice. We point and shoot at parents who have rebellious children and husbands with unhappy wives. We sling our “help” at pastors who aren’t thriving and millennials who aren’t working.

But often what hurting people need isn’t a prescription but our presence.

For the record, I still screw this up quite often. I still spout off my “lessons” and “insights” to the poor soul who paused too long in our conversation. But I’m learning. I’m learning to slow down, to speak less and listen more. Here are three questions I try to wrestle through before offering anyone a “cure”:

  1. Have I been asked for my advice? If not, don’t offer it. Period.
  2. What’s driving my need to speak? Her need or mine? This one question slows down any impulsive advice-giving habit. It requires thoughtful introspection and ruthless self-awareness. And I’d bet my Reese’s that my need often drives my words far more than anyone else’s.
  3. Have I earned the right? In other words, am I an inner-circle friend? Think of it this way: If she was hospitalized, do we have the kind of intimate relationship where I could help her to the bathroom? If not, why would I presume to speak into this vulnerability?

Here’s the short of it, friends. You and I, we don’t need any more advice or resources or dogmatic directives about how we should live and work and relate and be. One click of the browser or one flip of the TV will pull up endless information about all the ways we should do a better job of living our own lives.

Nope, we don’t need any more advice.

What we DO need, what we are downright desperate for, is real people to hold space with us as we are.

Those who enter in and stick around. Those who don’t require that we cure all our flaws before they hang out with us.

People who not only tolerate unresolved, imperfect, in-progress people but actually want to do real, hard, beautiful life with them.

The irony? When you and I stop trying to fix one another and instead spend our best energy loving and enjoying and cherishing one another, some of the flaws and rough edges soften and smooth.

Because, as it turns out, what is most wounded within isn’t a food problem or cancer problem.

It’s a longing for love.

Question: Do you have a friend who holds space with you, as you are? Give him/her credit in the comments for how their presence has impacted you. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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29 thoughts on “3 Questions to Ask Before Offering Advice

  1. Michele,

    Somehow, I suspect this is a greater challenge for the guys here, because by design, we are “fixers.” When Alean has a pain or a frustration she is pouring out to me, my mind downshifts into fix-it mode. I want to make this pain go away. I want/need to “rescue” her from this frustration.

    For me, this line…

    >> That’s why we resort to fixing. Because fixing keeps us from feeling.

    … holds and highlights some uncomfortable truth. I’ll likely spend the next hour and a week contemplating and reflecting on the implications that presses into my life.

    • Michele- this is a beautifully written piece and a needed reminder. Thank you for the 3 questions… I will think of those before offering my self-proclaimed wisdom!

    • I for one am very thankful for my husband’s gift of fixing! It’s a true gift, and as a result, our family is safe, well-provided for, protected. Except when I’m having a cry-fest, and the only fixing I need him to do is grab the box of tissues. 🙂 Thank you for your honest self-reflection and willingness to listen and learn. Such a powerful leadership example for all of us, Damon.

  2. Oh how I relate to this! Just the other day someone asked me if I had tried something for my pain and said she would research it for me. I first asked God for grace. I knew she was trying to help me. But it’s been almost 18 years since I broke my neck and ended up with chronic pain. Did she really think I haven’t tried EVERYTHING? (Lord… don’t forget the grace).

  3. This is so beautiful. As someone who has been bedridden for years, I can relate. I love your questions. My friend’s name is Jill.

  4. Ay, yi, yi, next time please warn me that you are about to stomp all over my feet! Lol.
    I am waaaaaaay too guilty of this. I so needed it spelled out this clearly!

  5. People are deep wells. “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insights draws them out.” (Proverbs 20:5). … I’ve experienced over and over I won’t draw anyone out unless I truly listen … to the person, to my own thoughts and to the Holy Spirit. Right in the middle of those 3 concentric circles (the person sharing, my thoughts and the Holy Spirit — a special 3-way listening) there’s a question often rolling around in my mind, “I wonder what’s really going on here?” … That question doesn’t lead me to say, “Here’s what I think you should do. It’s worked for me. Let me tell you my story.” It’s not about me at all. But it often does lead me to ask the person I’m listening to: “What do you think God is saying to you in this?” And that sometimes leads to this question, “What do you want to do? What are your top 2 or 3 options?” And that can often open the door to the all-important question, “What are you going to do?”

  6. Michele, once again you spoke such truth with such grace and love that the words could penetrate inward without running off and feeling too painful to receive. I have a very special friendship with my dearest friend that understands the weight struggles, but I remind her I don’t see her weight issues at all like she does, I just see her heart! Truly I do! Thank you for another tender touch to our hearts!

  7. I am guilty, but it’s truly because I want to relieve someone of whatever pain is in their life in any small way I can. And then I totally get it because I’ve been on the other end of a certain family member who thinks my life needs fixing. Thank you I will be slow to speak and just be there,

  8. I want to respectfully disagree and point out that sometimes we shouldn’t just sit and listen. There are times when it’s important to help and give advice (even unsolicited). I hate getting advice I didn’t ask for but there were many times when the person who gave me advice had something wise to say that I should have listened to. Yes, it may annoy or irritate you but IF that advice was given in love not because somebody tried to sell you their new diet, exercise regimen or a pill you should slow down and listen. Yes, even if you tried 110 things there may be that 111th thing that makes a difference. How will you even know about it if nobody tells you? I rarely voice my opinion thinking I need to earn the right and be a part of that inner circle but there are times when I miss an opportunity to help people because I walk on eggshells too afraid to upset them. Pray first, check your heart, examine your intentions but don’t walk away if you feel you can help “fix” something.

    • Thank you for your alternative point of view, Ana. I appreciate the thought you’ve put behind this. I’ve not landed in the same place, mainly because I keep going back to the story of Job and his friends. Initially they sat in mourning with him, not saying a word. But then they started talking. They truly believed they had the “fix” for his problems, and God rebuked them harshly for it. Perhaps the key is to slow down, as you mentioned, pray earnestly, and weigh your intentions and the Holy Spirit’s leading before speaking.

  9. Excellent suggestion on the 3 questions! And great insight into possible driving force: Because fixing keeps us from feeling. Both important steps towards making a change in my behavior.

  10. I have 3 friends with whom we hold each other’s space – together. Yesterday we had lunch together and, of course, laughed a lot. But there was serious conversation, too. At one point I said something like, “I think we’ll all need group therapy after this.” One of the others piped up with, “I thought that what this was!” Yes, my friend, that’s what we are – group therapy for each other. (And yes I would [and have] helped one of them to the bathroom.) Friends for 25+ years. Good time, rough times, sad times, silly times, any time. Last autumn we even went topless together…that is in a VW but convertible with the top down.

  11. Well said. While I don’t struggle with my weight I am on total disability due to relentless migraines. Well meaning people love to send me posts that if I would try this or that I would be cured. I believe that if there was a true cure for debilitating migraine pain the lines around treatment centers would be long and it would be world wide news. The same with cancer cures. My son died on Thanksgiving 2016 of colon cancer at 38. One “caring” friend told me to feed him apricot pit’s!

  12. Great, practical insight for a challenge in which we too often forget to practice self-awareness:).
    Thanks Michelle!
    Byron

  13. I have been guilty of doing this to others as well as I’ve had this done to me. Such a well-timed reminder and encouragement to be aware of how we can hurt people even when we mean well if we don’t take the time before we speak to consider how this may affect their spirit. Thank you.

  14. Thank you for some really useful ideas on how to show greater care for others. I am so glad I read your piece.

    I have several friends who hold space for me among them Roslynn P., Heather G., my sister Boo, Debbie S., Melanie S., and my Dad. Thank you for giving me a moment of gratitude and learning. Hope your day is blessed.

  15. Oh my goodness, I love this so much!! I have been trying so hard to make people in my life understand that I am not looking for advice or fixes. I just want someone to sit in the crap with me a moment or two and accept that it sucks. You so perfectly explained how this feels!

  16. Doesn’t it seem like a lot of the time the people who are trying to “fix” have not experienced that particular situation and therefore don’t really have a clue what the person in pain (physical and/or emotional) is walking through!?

    I had a miscarriage years ago. One of the best experiences about it was my sister in law who showed up with chocolate ice cream and no platitudes. And the women who were the most helpful were the ones who had already walked that particular road of grief as well.