Face it: your wise advice may not be helpful to your friends, family and colleagues. Even if they asked your opinion, chances are you won’t say what they want to hear. As for giving the benefit of your experience to your teen or your partner: that seems like an impossible task. How can you avoid the rolled eyes or fixed smile that shows you said the wrong thing?
The following steps may help you avoid some of the multiple pitfalls and booby traps associated with advice.
Always start by listening carefully. Don’t take the question at face value. Think about what you’re being asked, because it’s rarely as simple as it seems.
Every partner knows a seemingly straightforward question, like, “Do you like my new dress?” is laced with subtext, such as, “Am I too fat?” “Do I deserve to spend money on myself?” “Don’t I look a lot better than that tart I saw you ogling at the party yesterday?” The honest answer may be, “I don’t think blue suits you,” but you know that’s not what’s needed.
This kind of question is a plea for approval, and your answer should recognise that. It’s a foolish man who hesitates before telling his partner she looks wonderful. Forget honesty, this is about support.
Other calls for your advice, though, may be around personal problems, such as “What should I do about my son’s school refusal/my husband’s neglect/my mother’s forgetfulness.” These queries stray into a different area. The person asking your advice here is trying to decide how she should act.
Tread very carefully, as you are not the one making the decision. Your friend has to make her own judgement, because she will live with the consequences. Don’t ruin a friendship by saying categorically what you think she should do, have her follow your advice and find it doesn’t work. You can help best by enabling her to think through her options.
Ask a few questions of your own, designed to make the issue clearer. Use the “wh” questions, “Who, what, when, where, why and how?” to explore the problem. These questions help her think more widely and deeply about the problem. Focus on the words she says. A useful technique is to pick out a word, repeat it in a questioning voice and ask an open “wh” question about it.
For example, you might say, “Refusal? What happens exactly?” Use her response to move farther up the conversational ladder until the problem becomes very clear. She may say, “He says he hates his teacher.” You can then use another “wh” question, “Why do you think that may be?” to help her think further.
Your aim is to help her find her own solution, not to impose one of your own. These questions may help her to clarify what she thinks about the situation, and she could well see and clarify her decision as she talks it through.
You can then help by asking what she thinks will happen if she follows her own advice. Use the same open question ‘laddering’ technique to take her through possible consequences. This may help her feel more confident about her proposed actions. It may on the other hand, lead to her changing her mind.
By using these steps, you avoid imposing your own solutions on your friend, help her to make her own mind up and support her decision.
More posts to help you build your own communication kit:
How to Banish Guilt Through Positive Thinking
Solve Your Problem: Communication Skills That Work
I write this Communication Blog
Frances Evesham: on the run around Europe for years, with only a husband, three children and a succession of opinionated cats to keep me out of trouble. Somerset stopped me in my tracks. Now I walk in the country and breathe sea air. I will get around to cleaning the house soon.
I've been a speech therapist, a professional communication fiend and a road sweeper. I sometimes work in the criminal courts to uphold fair questioning of people with special needs.
I smell the roses, lavender and rosemary as I cook with a glass of wine in one hand and a bunch of chillies in the other. Writing historical romances and books on communication leaves enough time to enjoy bad jokes and puns and wish I’d kept on with the piano lessons.