Friendship and Giving Good Advice

Good advice is a gift. Like any gift, it isn’t about you, but the other person. Here, this means that what matters is what helps your partner in conversation, and not your desire to be seen as wise.

Tied up in this is an important recognition: good advice shouldn’t involve telling someone what to do (they likely already know), but instead, helping them understand why they need to do it.

Advice is useless if someone can’t implement it, and it is even worse if they were ignorant in the first place. By analogy, there is no use giving someone a hammer if they don’t know how to use one, and there is even less use telling someone to buy a hammer if they don’t know what it is; no use telling someone to be happy if they don’t know how to be, and even worse to tell someone they can be happy if they don’t even see it as a possibility.

The problem we often fall into when giving advice is we don’t really give advice at all; advice, and the subjunctive ‘to advise’ comes from the Latin ad meaning ‘to’, and videre meaning ‘see’. That is, to advise means helping someone ‘to see’ something they couldn’t previously; but usually we think of it as meaning to give instructions, commands, or orders. We have a tendency to tell people what they should do, without giving proper consideration to what they could do. If someone smokes, no use telling them they should quit; of course they know that, what they need is advice, a way to see how they could quit. ‘Advice’, seen in this way, is about opening up possibilities for action, rather than providing instructions for an action that clearly isn’t possible. After all, a smoker really would quit if they could.

What this reveals is that good advice does not come from a position of authority; it does not involve one person telling another what they should or must do. Good advice, rather, comes from a position of assistance and partnership, and its aim is giving insight into what one can do.

Good advice should operate like a mirror, giving reflections on what the other person is saying. It could, rather than clay-shooting a target, be more like a game of verbal Ping-Pong, where their thoughts are bounced back to them at different velocities and angles, to have them return the play and keep going. What someone may need is not comments on appropriate courses of action, but a back and forth which will bring their own thoughts and feelings into greater clarity. If someone says ‘I’m feeling sad’, the response is not ‘you shouldn’t be, the weather is so nice today’ but instead, ‘why are you feeling this way? Let’s talk about it’ (and thus opening the door for actual advice). Good advice, in this sense, isn’t a one way street, but two-ways, and relies on bringing unknown thoughts and feelings into focus.

The statement ‘giving advice’ implicitly reveals there is a person giving the advice, but what about the one receiving it? Giving advice must be intimately connected and inextricably bound to the person who receives it. Just as we want to talk, the other person want to be heard. This can yield particularly fruitful results. Imagine you have a friend who is complaining about their struggle with a university course. You could very well give them advice on how to study, the importance of being studious, and tips and tricks on how to maximise their time; and these tid-bits of advice might be very insightful and helpful…to another person. But, there is any chance that if you were really listening, you would find the problem wasn’t with that university course at all, but the fact they feel, deep down and irrevocably so, stupid. What they need isn’t advice in the traditional sense, but advice in the Latin sense, in allowing them ‘to see’ these deeper feelings. The best advice you could offer them, therefore, might not be tips on how to study, but the insight of a partial observer alerting them to a deeper angst which must be addressed.

Advice comes in many forms; we think of it as instruction or teaching, but it could more properly be identified as guidance. But we can only provide guidance when we know where someone has come from and where they are going, therefore, the best advice needs us to do something very simple which parents and lovers know all too well: listen.

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