I’m a volunteer for a crisis help line and I’ve learned a valuable lesson while talking with dozens of people who are going through incredible pain and confusion and chaos: stop giving advice. I don’t mean “cut down on advice,” which is what I’ve tried to do for the past few years. It’s clear to me now that I need to completely stop telling people what I think they should do, even if they ask for advice.
When you are working with a helpline, you are trained not to give advice because it’s impossible to dispense useful suggestions after a brief acquaintance with someone. What’s more, telling someone want to do when you have insufficient information can be dangerous. You might tell them to talk to their dad about their problems in college, not realizing they haven’t spoken to their dad in months because he’s abusive.
Instead of giving advice, volunteers learn how to encourage the person who reached out to find their own solutions. “What should I do?” they ask. I answer, “That’s a great question. It makes sense that you’d be confused right now. Let’s brainstorm together on how you can connect with the support you need.”
At that point, I would start asking questions and offering encouragement. The types of questions I ask aren’t rhetorical; I’m not using my questions to lead them to the answer I want them to give. Instead, I use open-ended, curious queries that allow the other person to really consider their response. I don’t say, “Have you thought about seeing a therapist?” Instead, I ask, “What things have worked for you in the past when you felt depressed?”
My goal is to create an environment in which it’s safe for them to be honest and to ask themselves tough questions. Eventually, they either land on a good solution or they break away from the conversation. Either way, I’ve done the best I can for them.
By listening deeply and responding to what they tell me, I’m doing more for them than any advice could. As psychotherapist Richard B. Joelson wrote in Psychology Today, “People often find their own solutions when they have an opportunity to express their feelings in an atmosphere of acceptance, patience, tolerance, and support. Active and attentive silence may, at times, be more helpful than anything one person can say or do to help another.”
Giving advice backfires. When someone tells you about something they’re struggling with, it’s common to assume they want solutions, but that’s rarely the case. If your friend tells you they hate their boss, you might be tempted to tell them to quit, or offer tips on how to manage up. “If I were you,” you might say, “I’d sit down with the boss and have an honest discussion.”
But that’s the problem: they are not you. Your advice will almost certainly be based on your own experiences, but your friend has had different experiences and is a wholly different person. Plus, you have jumped to advice without really hearing what’s bothering your friend and why the relationship with their boss is so strained.
What’s more, your advice is very often about you, and not the person you’re advising. A series of research studies have shown that dispensing wisdom creates a mood boost for the dispenser and depresses the mood of the person receiving the counsel. In an overview of four separate studies, Dr. Art Markman explained that research shows giving advice instills a sense of power in the advisor. Dispensing wisdom creates a possibility that the other person may follow your advice and knowing there’s a chance that you may influence another person’s behavior makes you feel powerful.
That’s why we often get upset when our advice is not followed. We’ve invested a bit of our identity into the advice we gave. If someone chooses not to do as we said, we feel personally affronted, and we have lost that bit of rank or power we gained when we gave the advice in the first place.
Finally, giving advice is a waste of breath. People rarely do what you tell them to unless they were planning to do that anyway. When a human is told what to do, our brains literally go into defensive mode. We really, really don’t like it and we probably don’t listen to much of what comes after “Here’s what I would do…”
The truth is, when someone comes to you with a problem, they want to tell their story and be heard, or they want validation for the course they’ve already chosen. Even when they ask for advice, they often don’t mean it. Asking for advice is a conversation starter most of the time, not an invitation to give your opinion.
So, a) your experience is unique to you, b) you don’t have all the information, c) giving advice is about the advisor and not the advised, d) they just wanted to be heard.
Maybe you’ve been told not to give advice unless you’re asked for it. Here’s my unsolicited suggestion: don’t give advice even when you are asked for it. Instead, learn from those who help people in crisis. Listen deeply, with compassion and patience, and let them find their own solutions by asking questions that come from a place of curiosity and empathy.
The best you can offer to someone in trouble is your time and a willing ear. You’d be amazed to find how valuable that is.