Q: What if they ask us directly for advice?
A: Although it is tempting to just tell the person what we think, that might not be the most skillful response. If the person is trying to avoid making a decision, it may set you up to get the blame when the advice fails. The person may be just avoiding the burden of making a decision. Decision making is often very difficult and requires a great deal of reflective energy, gathering information, weighing pros and cons, etc. You may be more helpful if you ask more questions. For example, you may want to say, “Have you any ideas yourself about how to solve this problem?” or “Is there anything else you might want to know that might help you make this decision?” Eventually, you may want to offer what you think you would do under the circumstances with the caveat that you aren’t sure that what works for you would work for them.
Q: What if what they tell us is really stupid and wrong or we can see that they are being over reactive or oversensitive? My instinct is to try to help.
A: The first thing to do if someone is emotionally dysregulated is to try to get them to calm down. It won’t help to say “You are being oversensitive.” or “Stop being so touchy.” Since emotions are contagious, it might be more helpful if you can avoid being reactive to their emotional state by responding with a calm voice or silence and active listening body language. This helps because rather than being caught in their emotional storm, they may be caught in your emotional calm. I have had the experience of listening patiently and calmly to a tirade of verbal abuse (directed toward someone else) for quite a long period and as the steam runs out, the emotional arousal dissipates and the person goes back to being their normal rational self. At that point, they usually recognize they were being reactive and you don’t need to tell them. If their reactivity is extremely high and you begin to feel reactive, it may be better to try to gently and indirectly get out of the situation. You may want to come back later with a question like “Help me understand what was going on with you yesterday.”
Q: What if they are hurting themselves or someone else? “As her mother, I know how she should be raising her children and she’s doing it all wrong.” or “As your best friend, I can see you are being rude and insensitive to your boyfriend and if you don’t stop it, he is going to leave you.”
A: That’s hard. We are particularly invested in being right when we think we are protecting someone else. Of course if there is violence or a clear human rights violation, it is appropriate to intervene. However, if it is not a matter of safety or human rights (not always obvious), it is helpful to adopt a cautionary stance. Notice that in the two examples given in the question, there was no request for help or advice. The very first question to ask yourself is whether it is your own discomfort that you are trying to fix or theirs. If you have fully clarified your own motives and come to a calm, clear mind that is motivated by kindness and compassion, perhaps you could use that “Help me understand” approach to open the discussion of what you see. If they are truly doing the best they can under the circumstances, seeing the situation more clearly may help them make a better choice. “Help me understand what leads you to stop at fast food restaurants for the children.” After you listen thoroughly and validate them, you may ask “Do you see how that could get to be a problem?” In the second case something like the following might be more likely to get heard. “It puzzles me that you seemed so short with your boyfriend yesterday. Did you notice that? What was that about?”
Q: How do I tell someone not to give me advice or not to tell me what to do?
A: The simplest statement is: “I know you mean well and are trying to help. However, I am comfortable with my own ability to solve this problem. If I actually want your advice, I will let you know.” Sometimes this is taken as a total rejection of them as a person and they get their feeling hurt. This can be minimized if the statement is coupled with an acknowledgement and clarification. “Please recognize that I do care for you and I do respect your advice. However, I think it is really important that I figure this out myself.” Or “I assure you that I can handle this. I am sharing this for your information about how my life is going and I would really just like you to listen and be supportive.” Unfortunately, if the individual is in the habit of giving advice or being bossy, once may not be enough. You may have to gently remind them many times that you will ask for their advice when you want it before the advice giving habit is broken.
If you have questions or comments, including additional questions you would like me to address, feel free to share them with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.