“Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.” Many of you will remember these words of wisdom from Baz Lurhman’s song (more spoken to music) Everybody is Free (To Wear Sunscreen). What a lot of people don’t realise is that this was originally written by Mary Schmich, a Chicago Tribune columnist for a speech she gave to graduating students. The speech in itself is a piece of advice, with the explanation of what advice is given at the end to illustrate what advice really is.
Advice, put harshly is a form of dishonesty, mixed in with a smattering of self-aggrandizing. When we go into advice mode we are attempting to position ourselves as more superior than the recipient of our words of wisdom. Our initial intention no doubt was to support and help the person in front of us. This is especially acute if we like the person and want them to like us. Our drive to be accepted and be a useful senior member of the tribe is so strong that before we know it we are searching our memory bank for something useful, something that has happened to us, something we did that sort of worked. Once we find it we rearrange it and maybe add some new bits to make it more useful and more impressive, before we offer it to the poor helpless soul in front of us. For a moment you are the benevolent, wise chieftain dispensing advice to your faithful brethren. It feels great, we have been helpful, showed kindness and preventing them from making a terrible mistake. The recipient is grateful and feels loved, more importantly for that moment they have put you on a pedestal. That is of course if they have not been on the receiving end of words of wisdom in the past, or they have experience, or they don’t trust you. This is the problem with advice giving, it is not really designed to help the recipient. Its’ primary function is to help you look and feel good.
Don’t feel bad if you are a serial advice giver, most of us are. We all want to be accepted, we all want to be useful. Giving advice feels like a quick win, we receive an instant reward with the release of endorphins that make us feel good. We all remember that feeling so go to advice mode automatically to receive our treat, just like an obedient puppy. On many occasions we all like to get advice, as it requires a lot less effort being advised than thinking of a solution for ourselves. Being on the receiving end of kindly advice full of good intent makes us feel all warm and fuzzy. Someone loves us enough to share their wisdom with us. We all enjoy being a child and letting others make decisions for us from time to time, and we also all enjoy being the kindly parent supporting our grateful children. This is why advice giving is a default setting for many of us.
The problem with advice is that it is based on our memories of events we were involved in. As we have mentioned before our memories are notoriously unreliable. The older the memory, the less factual it is. Our minds are not reliable recorders of fact, our minds will always add or takeaway to confirm our view of the world.
Now this is not to say that advice is not useful or is somehow destructive. It needs to be bookmarked though as your experience. If advice is framed as a story, a tale of success or a cautionary tale, helps the recipient consider that experience and apply it to their view of the world. They can then accept or reject it without offending you, all they have to do is pay attention and show interest in your story. If they find it useful they can then decide to ask you more questions or find out a bit more about similar situations. The responsibility then lies with you to make sure the story you are relaying is not a complete fiction and is based on actual events. Telling stories is a wonderful way to impart knowledge without you appearing to have power over the individual. There is still a requirement for them to raise their own awareness about their capability before they can try any nuggets of wisdom they may have extracted from your story.
Overtly telling people what to do should be confined to instruction when imparting new skills or techniques that have very clear rules, that if are not followed will end in the failure of the activity. This is not advice, this is instruction. Once the knowledge has been shared, we must desist from giving advice, and instead provide feedback and ask questions that enlighten the individual into realising their own capacity to achieve the activity more effectively.
Timothy Gallwey in his book The Inner Game of Tennis describes this perfectly. When we learn how to play tennis, we are taught the rules and techniques of playing tennis. This he says is the outer game. Once we have mastered the outer game, constantly being instructed about it is not going to improve our performance. Galwey suggests now that it is important to explore the inner game of tennis. This is paying attention to what is limiting us. This might be what we believe is our limit or that our back hand is our weakness, or how we are unable to beat a certain opponent. These are limiting or inhibiting thoughts, something we all have that can be challenged by asking questions that raise our awareness and reduce the effect of these limiting beliefs and increase our enabling beliefs.
Another way of looking at this is to consider how we think. It is suggested that we think in terms of questions and statements. Our questions and statements are based on recalled memories or projections of our future. We make sense of our world in terms of questions and statements we make based on either recalled memories or projections of what we perceive our future to be. Now the vast majority of us have a mixture of helpful and hindering questions and statements that dictate how we see our world.
We have a tendency to default to hindering more than helpful questions and statements. When people have experienced failure in the past, they generally tend to focus on this when recalling memories. So what if, by simply asking people a couple of question you could change their hindering thoughts into helpful thoughts. When they tell you they cannot do something, based on a recalled memory of a previous failure. What if you asked them what is the most helpful statement they could say about their chances of success? Or what question could they ask themselves that would be more helpful. They might fail again but a shift in mind-set may well help them pick themselves up review what they need to improve on to improve their chances of success. A shift in mind-set from hindering thoughts to helpful ones can change the way they see the world and improve their chances of success. This will not be achieved if you tel them what to do. All that does is confirm to them the hindering thoughts they have about themselves.
The next time someone comes to you with a problem or for some advice, ask yourself what would be the most helpful response I could give, that will give the results that both myself and the recipient require. Having flexibility along the directive/non-directive continuum takes practice but will change the way you connect with others.
Now we have explored our tendency to want to give advice, instead of listening and supporting people to improve themselves, we can now examine whether the people we are connecting to the right people in the right way, for both parties to get the most out of the relationship.
The theory of transactional analysis developed by Eric Berne, might help us understand why we connect with certain people and not with others. This theory maps interpersonal relationships into 3 ego states. The parent, the adult and the child. Now typically we are conditioned to be comfortable and seek 2 ego states. You have guessed it, we are most happy in parent or child states, as they give us a warm and fuzzy feeling as described earlier in the chapter. It is often unusual for both people in a relationship to be in an adult state.
Now the non-directive, non-advice giving approach that I have described is really helpful and has great benefits on a relationship (either personal or professional), however this requires both of you to be in an adult ego state. When people come to you with a problem most of the time they are coming to you in a child ego state, and are looking for a solution to their problem. They may well be expecting to be the parent, and might be confused and resistant to you in an adult ego state, listening and asking questions without doling out the usual advice. This is where the offering of stories of your experiences in similar circumstances can help, alter the mindset of your friend shift to an adult ego state. Especially if you follow up with some questions about how your experience compares to theirs and what they might use, which then brings them back to their experience and how they will solve it.
The aim is to make connections in an adult ego state and therefore have more mutually beneficial relationships instead of one of you being dependant on the other, which can often lead to a toxic drama triangle where one of you is always the victim and one of you plays the role of the rescuer, that just breeds resentment and a breakdown in the relationship.
So as an exercise map out your relationships, with you in the middle and all your relationships, both personal and professional branching out from you. Once you have everyone mapped out, using the transactional analysis ego states decide what type of relationship it is. On the connecting line between you an them write the initial of your ego state in the relationship nearest to you and their ego state initial nearest to them (like below).
When you have mapped and analysed all your relationships, consider all of them that are parent to child. Would they be improved if they were adult to adult relationships? Are you willing to change your mindset in that relationship? If not, is the relationship worth maintaining or is it time to end it? This seems quite harsh but if the desire to improve a relationship is not their or if there is no necessity for that relationship then maybe it would be more helpful to both of you to end it.
There is one last thing to add to your map, and that is the people that are in your world that you do not have a relationship with. Put them on the edge of your map. What could you gain from connected with these people as an adult to an adult? What is currently preventing you from connecting with them? Are you willing to attempt connection? Seeing relationships through the lens of an adult ego state, instead of a child or parent state can dramatically change how you map appears and what is useful for you, both personally and professionally.