It helps to remember how little we really see when we initially engage other people, or even people that we know fairly well. And while it seems like recognizing the limits of our knowledge would make it harder to connect, the opposite is really true. See, when we assume that we have the whole story, we tend to also assume we have the answers. Ever been on the receiving end of unsolicited advice that was totally ridiculous? That’s why.
On the other hand, recognizing that we don’t have the whole story, that this person’s experience may be different than ours, actually opens us up to listening. It allows us to occupy a space where we are open to receiving the other persons experience. You cannot give advice and receive another person’s story at the same time. You just can’t.
Unfortunately, people who have experienced a traumatic event are often ripe for receiving well-meaning but ill-informed advice. Part of the problem is that trauma symptoms sometimes look like issues that other people overcame when the issue wasn’t related to trauma. Consider:
- The obese person who receives advice on food pyramids and counting calories. She knows this. The problem is that she has a food addiction, which helps her cope with her trauma due to surviving childhood sexual abuse.
- The man who is having trouble sleeping who keeps getting advice about bedtime routines, and going to bed the same time each night. The problem is that he is a veteran who has been having flashbacks and nightmares since he returned from deployment.
- The person who has issues dating who keeps getting dating advice. The problem isn’t that they don’t understand how dating or relationships work. The problem is that they have been the victim of assault and have a great deal of trouble trusting and physically touching another person.
We can’t change other people, so I have no tips on how to stop others from giving unwanted advice, other than to say that you have the right to set boundaries and tell them that you don’t wish to discuss the matter and if that changes you will let them know.
However, I know that from time to time I have found myself running away with my own advice and that I have ceased being connected with them and am connecting with my own knowledge and experience—not ideal when you’re sitting with another person. I think most, if not all, of us have been there. So here are a few reminders on how to hold that space:
Listen to that person’s story. Listen with your eyes, as well—how do they appear? No one has ever complained that someone has listened too much.
Be transparent when you don’t know what to say
Sometimes we give advice when someone is sharing something painful because of our own discomfort. We want to feel useful. We want to make it better. We don’t want someone we are sitting with to hurt anymore. And even though you probably know, here it is again: it’s okay that you can’t make it better. It’s okay to just say “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say.” Totally better than giving unwanted advice.
Ask what they want
Sometimes I feel like I have information that could be helpful, but I almost always ask, “Do you want me to listen or do you want advice?” Personally, I’ve noticed that many of my therapist friends do the same thing—we’re used to juggling the friend hat and therapist hat—and I love it. I have never been annoyed by that question—and it’s probably no coincidence that with the person who asks, I often choose advice! You see, we are often ready to receive wisdom from someone who makes us feel seen and heard and respected.