The Problem with Advice
Today we’re going to look at how giving advice might be one of those good intentions that may actually be doing more harm than good.
Let’s look at a really common example, bullying. Bullying can happen anywhere: at home by a family member, at work by a co-worker, or over the phone with a parent. Anytime we feel we are being treated unfairly or disrespectfully, and we perceive some sort of power differential, it can feel like bullying.
Imagine a kid coming to a teacher or parent, upset that someone bullied them in some way. Or if you prefer, think of the last time a friend came to you upset or that you went to a friend upset. The most common responses are:
MINIMIZING– “There, there. It isn’t so bad. You are ok. They probably didn’t mean it or maybe they were just trying to be playful”, or “Maybe you misunderstood”.
FOCUSING ON THE POSITIVE– “They are probably just jealous and this will make you stronger”, “At least you don’t have to see them again until next week”.
GIVING ADVICE– “Next time you should …”
CRITICIZING– “Why didn’t you …”
TAKING OVER– “I’m going over there right now to …”, “I’ll take care of this!”
So what are we REALLY COMMUNICATING with each of these:
MINIMIZING– We are sending the message to the upset person that they are wrong to be distressed when they perceive they were treated poorly, unfairly or when they feel unsafe. Even if there was a misunderstanding, minimizing sends the message to NOT TRUST their STRONG AND HEALTHY SELF. It is the healthy part of them that is sending them negative feedback when something was wrong. This is what was making them distressed when they felt threatened emotionally or physically…and that is the appropriate response because it motivates them to take appropriate action to remedy the situation. When we are discouraging them from listening to that signalling system, they can’t get back on track.
FOCUSING ON THE POSITIVE– Here we are again telling them that it is wrong to be mad or sad when they feel mistreated or threatened and that by focusing on the positive side of the situation and ignoring their strong and healthy self, everything will be better.
GIVING ADVICE– This says “I know better than you”, completely invalidating their strong and healthy self.
CRITICIZING– This says “I know better than you”, again dis-empowering their strong and healthy self AND you were you wrong! Like kicking someone when they are down. NOTE: This is different than offering constructive feedback once the person is in a place to hear it.
TAKING OVER– Similar to #3 and #4, we are sending the message that “I know better than you”, and “you are too weak or incapable of handling this yourself”.
The problem with all of these is that because they interrupt our connection to our strong and healthy self, it discourages us from listening to what we know that we know, and all that angry and sad energy gets stuck inside us.
We don’t feel we have permission anymore to express it in a healthy way (ie. talking about it or getting angry about it), so then it gets re-routed to defences and into the body, destined to come out in unhealthy ways.
NORMALIZE and VALIDATE– “If I thought someone was just using me to get what they wanted (or was excluding me on purpose, etc), I would be upset too! That seems like a healthy response when someone isn’t treating us with respect and consideration”. Notice how this would apply even if we actually thought it was likely a misunderstanding! Or ” You absolutely have every right to angry when someone treats you that way! I would too!” Feel free to do as much validating and normalizing as seems fit for the situation. We all like to feel heard and when we have felt threatened, our connection to strong and healthy us can feel a bit shaky, so reinforcing that our feelings are appropriate to OUR PERCEPTION of the situation can’t go wrong.
BRAINSTORM WITH THEM- “What do YOU think needs to happen now? What do you think you need to move forward from this situation?” (Here we can also offer our suggestions as POSSIBILITIES not as THE WAY to do it, and offer these suggestions tentatively. For example, “I wonder (this is a great lead in) if it is possible something was going on with them? That doesn’t excuse their behaviour or how they treated you, I just wonder if it would change your experience if it turned out it really was a misunderstanding and if you think it is worth finding some way to check that out? “. OR “I wonder if it would be helpful for you to talk to them directly or if you would like to get someone else involved, like me. What feels right to you?“
EMPHASIZE YOUR SUPPORT – “You know what is best for you and I am totally here to support you or have your back if you need me”. Or, “I trust your judgment, you just let me know how I can be of help, until then, I am happy to just be your sounding board”. It can also sometimes be helpful to normalize not having all the answers right away, “It’s ok if you aren’t sure what feels best right now, why don’t you take some time and let me know what you come up with. The ball is in your court and I am happy to help any way I can“.