That’d be advice, according to Ambrose Bierce. Nowadays, that’s saying something. The American penny is considered so worthless, people don’t bother to pick it up when they see a stray penny on the street. People will actually sweep it up and throw it out with the trash. It’s junk money. Optimist that I am, I’ll pick it up anyway; they add up. If Bierce’s definition still holds, advice is worth less than pennies.
And yeah, collectively that’s been my experience. Certain individual bits of advice have been quite valuable. But the bulk of the advice I’ve heard in my lifetime has been pretty useless. That’s ’cause it’s been given as a knee-jerk response.
You see, when a person gives you a tale of woe—when things have been bad, and they share you some of the details—unless you’re a heartless bastard, you want to console them, somehow. You’re just not sure how. What I tend to experience the most is unsolicited advice: “You know what you ought to do…”
Yes, I think, I know what I ought to do. When I wanted advice, I sought it from people who know what they’re talking about. You, I’m not so sure about. Especially having heard your advice.
If you think you can solve their problem personally—they’re short on resources and you know where those resources are, or they need work and you know who’s hiring—that’s not advice. That’s you getting involved. That’s a whole other deal. Advice requires nothing on our part. That’s why it’s offered so freely: It costs us nothing. That’s also why it’s not respected: We know it costs nothing.
In therapy groups—in the good groups, anyway—the leaders remind the participants that we are not therapists. We have no business suggesting solutions. We’re not qualified. We’re in therapy ourselves, after all: If we were any good at following our solutions, we wouldn’t need to be here.
And even if we were, nobody ever actually asked us for advice. Sharing one’s problems is not a request for answers. When I rant, I’m not asking for consolation. I’m actually consoling myself, by getting it out of my system, by articulating it and unburdening myself. I feel better afterwards.
If I share my problems with you, it’s because I don’t want our relationship to be a superficial one: I’m opening up. If I get, as your response, some generic advice—some superficial bandages that’ll cover up my problem—I could easily interpret that as your way of saying, “No, I don’t want to go there with you. Fix yourself. Leave me out of it. Next time I ask you ‘How’s it going?’ just answer ‘Fine’ like everyone else.”
Any good feeling I might have had, is usually gone when I’m foisted with some advice I have no intention of following. I’m too polite to say so, though. Maybe I shouldn’t be. Then I won’t have to rant, all over again, about the uselessness of unsolicited advice.
You wanna console people once they’ve shared a sob story? Tell them you have their sympathy. You needn’t do anything more. If they’re fishing for advice, or for you to solve their problems, they need to come right out and tell you so. The reason they haven’t told you so is because that’s not why they told you their troubles. They’re sharing. That’s all.
If you can solve their problems, do so. If you can’t help, but you want to do something, be generous: Give them something. Doesn’t have to be the contents of your wallet. Buy ’em lunch, or a coffee. No, that doesn’t solve anything, but it does make them feel better, and that’s good in itself. (And if they refuse your generosity because they “don’t need charity,” well, now you know most of the reason why they’re suffering.) Do something specific; avoid the whole “Anything I can do, you let me know,” that we all know is usually insincere, and is never followed up on.
I really do wish, though, that when people offer unsolicited advice, they would use the phrase, “You know what you ought to do?” before they get into it. Most of the time they just dive into the advice with “You oughta….” This deprives me of all sorts of witty comebacks. “Yeah, what I ought to do is get out of here before you start making suggestions.” Or “I ought to cover my ears and scream because now you’re gonna start advising me.” Or “I ought to kill you, steal your identity, and head to Mexico.” But nobody gives me the opening anymore. Oh well.