The Inadvertent Arrogance in Offering Advice

How to Talk to Someone with an Illness

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Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

Everyone wants to be helpful. I mean, don’t you? We’ve all heard that if you’re not helpful then you’re just taking up space. This drive to be a solutions oriented society has shaped the way we think and speak and how we relate to each other. We used to accept uncertainty with grace and listen to stories about the unknown with calm interest and wonder. We used to watch shows like Twilight Zone and revel in the quandaries. (Some of us still do.)

Now, modern technology has empowered us to have all of life’s answers at our fingertips. These days you don’t even have to type anymore to access the internet. Heck, you can ask your devices to look up information and read it back to you. If you’re low on tech toys your friends will probably collectively jump to their phones to look up answers if you can’t be bothered with the task. Regardless of who or what you ask for answers, you’re bound to get all kinds of answers, opinions, advice and feedback. And that’s FANTASTIC! If that’s what you’re looking for.

When you’re living a daily reality of health concerns there are moments when you don’t want to seek answers anymore. You just want the relief of talking out loud and getting out of your own head.

Those of us with chronic health issues live a great deal of our time suffering inside ourselves, our minds swirling in the insane vortex of uncertainty. The rest of the time is spent scouring the internet for answers. Sometimes we’re so consumed by our illness that we think of little else. So, yes, there are times we just want to talk.

What we want is from you is for you to just listen.

Yes, it’s okay to just listen. You don’t have to solve our problem for us. We aren’t asking you to. Trust us, we’ve already consulted with doctors and experts and most of us are guilty of surfing the internet endlessly in search of answers and relief. We’ve diligently researched and self-diagnosed and tried to align our symptoms with solutions. We’ve even tried the snake oil. What we’re looking for is an ear and sometimes a shoulder.

You may not know this but to someone who has exhausted themselves searching for answers and information, your unsolicited, often simplistic and cliche advice comes across as arrogant and insulting.

In offering advice you’re presuming that your friend hasn’t done much thinking on the matter and that somehow you’re smarter than them. So, unless you’re an expert on their health issue, please avoid advice.

“But I’m just trying to help!” We know this, and this is why, despite our immediate irritation with you, we still love you. And this is why everyone can benefit from this lesson.

The best help you can offer a person is giving them a platform to think for themselves and let them tell you their story.

How do I do this?” You begin by listening. Truly listening and not spinning an inner dialogue or otherwise zoning out. When you hear something you want to know more about you then ask questions. Not statements wrapped in questions, but real open-ended questions, such as:

  • What have you already tried? What has or hasn’t worked?
  • Is there anything you’ve heard about that you haven’t tried yet?
  • What resources have been helpful to you?
  • What other options exist?
  • What’s your strategy for dealing with your issue?
  • What have you heard from the experts you’ve consulted with?

Clearly you can modify these questions to suit your specific conversation. These sample questions are just to get you familiar with open-ended questions. This is neither a definitive nor exhaustive list.

So the next time you want to be a good friend, tell that nagging deep-seated self-rewarding impulse attached to giving advice to take a hike. When it’s not your story it’s easier to listen anyways.

Originally published at

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