Don't waste your good advice

Giving advice can be a good thing. I say that it can be, but not that it always is, because it actually isn't in all instances a good thing. There must be a genuine interest in the other person, a clear intention of helping them to achieve their goals; for your advice to be good it is required that you have taken some time to listen to them, have made an effort to understand them, have ascertained that you really have something to say, that indeed you have the competence to help. Otherwise, how could you be sure that what looks like well-meant mentoring isn't rather an attempt to use the other person for promoting your own purposes, or that you aren't just talking because you like to hear your own words?

Even from this brief reflection on what makes giving advice to others a good thing it is plain that this is an activity, something we engage in: we exercise our own personality in doing so. (As compared to handing out something, some 'wisdom stuff', as if it had been lying around in the attic until somebody came and collected it; advice is no ready-made stuff at all, it's constituted only by your active involvement.) Consider this parallel: when I give a book as a present, I do so only when I have read the book myself (and found it worthwhile), and more importantly, when I have satisfied myself that this particular book would be of interest and value to the person whom I'm giving it — after all, trusting my choice, they will spend a considerable amount of time reading it, and perhaps invest some thought or emotion in it. So I'd better not be thoughtless about what I choose: just giving them something that I've glanced at quickly at the bookstore and liked the cover is out of the question. And my choices tell something about me as well: they express my views about the receiver, and what I think may be valuable and interesting for them. (We inevitably expose a little bit of our own self at these occasions, which requires some trust, don't you think? Think about what that tells you about people whose presents show no thoughtfulness at all, presents they might have given to anyone, and quite possibly have done so, time and again.)

Even when it doesn't cost you a lot, you should carefully consider whom, and how often, you do give advice. By this I don't mean one should engage in horsetrading: it's not that you should give your advice only if you get something in return. And in general I don't think we should be selective: whether you help others should not depend on who they are; advice should not be misused as an instrument to promote some and disadvantage others. If you use your help selectively like that, then you do merely treat it as an instrument. (And as I have explained, the way you dispense advice reflects on your own character: not too well, in this case.) So I'm not saying you should give good advice only to your friends and family, but not to strangers, on account of it being a scarce resource. (Because it isn't.)

But there is a point at which you may suspend, even abandon your giving advice — and that's when you realize that you are talking to deaf ears. Advising someone is an interaction, it degenerates when there is no response; and so degenerates your ability to engage in it; that ability needs the constant feedback from the recipients. If there is no response, and you still continue over and over again to try to help, this will in the end blunt your skill in giving good advice.

The response I mean is not necessarily that they follow your recommendations. They may think it over and decide not to — and that's fine. It is not necessary that the person you counsel always does what you advise them to do, always thinks what you suggest they should think. So whether they follow your advice is up to them; it's their responsibility, and it's their decision. There's a difference between advising and missionizing. And there are good reasons to put some trust in their reason as well as in your own. Another matter, though, is whether they listen to, and appreciate your recommendations. If that's not happening, you better stop giving them. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.