If only we were as good at solving our own problems as we are at solving other people’s. But like so many great ideas, our solutions for others often become less perfect the more we learn about the problem. So it is important to listen more as others share, tempering the impulse to give advice.
Everyone’s lives are complicated. So when people initially share their struggles with others, they shorten and simplify the story. Of course, as the listener, you don’t know what’s been left out, “reorganized” to fit their preferred narrative, or what parts of the story the person sharing simply does not know. Maybe John really did blow up when Karen asked a simple question. But she may have left out that she knew the question poked at a sensitive subject for him, or she may not have known that he had just gotten fired earlier that day and was a human pressure cooker destined to explode. Clearly, being aware of more details or context may have a huge impact on your reaction and your advice.
As you may already know from personal experience, no one can fully know a relationship as well as the people in it. And even then, each of those people may have different perspectives and insights about it. For instance, Karen might have thought she was asking an innocent question about what John had been doing the previous night. So she was surprised when John got angry and defensive. However, for John, who was raised in a home where his mother was constantly upset about his father’s philandering, he “knew” he was being accused of cheating. Given his past, he always promised himself that he would remain faithful in relationships, and he was especially upset about her question.
While friends often ask each other for help with difficult situations, the advice they offer can differ based on how much they know and their biases. If you didn’t know about John’s past, you might believe him and doubt Karen’s accusations. However, those who know John’s past might realize that he’s likely overreacting based on his childhood experiences and help him to at least question his reaction. Then again, some friends might have their own experiences and biases that affect the advice that they give -- which they may, or may not, even realize.
Personal struggles can be tricky; and when you add the dynamics of relationships, they can get downright complicated. So there are inherent traps in trying to offer advice to others. Yet if you are aware of this and humbly accept your limitations, you can offer guidance in providing advice. Remind yourself that you may be missing critical information or may not realize inherent biases (theirs or yours) that inform your opinions. Such caution can keep you from being too quick to judge and from making unintended suggestions. It can also make it easier for you to acknowledge and accept your own misperceptions and mistakes in judgment.
By remaining open to the possibility that you are misunderstanding a situation, you can offer advice humbly and with respect for the person you are trying to help. Your friend will likely feel accepted, supported, and respected, which will strengthen your relationship while also providing possibly helpful advice.
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