The danger of advice

words: Dr Bill Webster, Grief Journey
Dr Bill Webster

I’ve just gone through a battery of tests under anaesthetic in hospital. I was not looking forward to it! Nothing serious, I’m just at that age where my doctor wants to check I’m still alive, even though it nearly kills me in the process.

True to form, I didn’t tell anyone outside my family, except my good friend, Mike. He is a couple of years older, and his doctor had inflicted a similar ordeal on him recently.

Mike was eager to share his story with me, along with loads of advice, fervently giving me many ‘helpful tips’ of what I should and shouldn’t do. Good friend that he is, Mike was trying to be helpful… but he wasn’t. As I was absorbing his arduous experience, I found myself becoming more apprehensive, buying into his belief that the procedure would be incredibly tough. I felt worn out just imagining it.

The actual day turned out to be a breeze. I never felt the needle, fell peacefully asleep, and awoke to hear I am in pretty good shape… for a man of my age! Mike later confessed they had found some areas of concern in his tests, resulting in surgical procedures complicating his experience and recovery.

Looking back, although offering advice with the best intentions, none of it was truly helpful. If I’m brutally honest, hearing that advice caused me to consider cancelling the tests, but, of course, now I know all is well, I’m glad I didn’t!

What motivated me to share a ‘TMI moment’ for me – and maybe you as well – is this whole issue of advice.

Have you noticed the plethora of advice on social media and numerous places, about mental health, grief, coping and many other topics? I wonder if you, like me, struggle when people offer unsolicited advice?

When someone is struggling, they don’t need you or I to tell them what’s wrong with their lives. They already know it! They need encouragement, not admonishment. What they really need is help to realise they still have potential, and can still make it right.

Over the years, I wish I had listened more to my own gut than advice I was given. Our innate wisdom is our best teacher and guide to what we can and cannot do. By tuning in to my gut feelings, my experience became manageable, while, as I discovered later, Mike’s had been less so.

So before trying to give advice, pause and consider the following:

  • Have you truly understood the person and their situation?
  • Is this more about you, or the person you’re trying to help?
  • Instead of advice, what alternative approaches could you use, like listening, understanding or being there?
  • How can you point them in the direction of drawing out and trusting their own wisdom?

The best advice I can give anyone: “the answer is found within”.

Many of us search for answers ‘out there’ – that’s easier than looking inside ourselves. People spend a lot of time Googling, reading, attending courses, always looking for some magic bullet. But if knowledge was really the solution, this information age we’re living in would have solved most of our problems.

The trouble is we live in an age of misinformation. Where do we find truth? Who do we trust to give honest information?

The biggest gap in finding solutions is not in acquiring knowledge but in executing what we already know. My mum would often give me great advice. But, like many kids, I would usually not appreciate it at first. Later, when I arrived at my own conclusions, the truth of her sage advice sank in.

“The answer is found within” means when the dots finally connect, there’s an ‘aha!’ moment. Then you say, “How did I not see that before?” We need to remind others and ourselves who you already are.

What I am saying is, many people – especially grieving people – are constantly being bombarded by advice by friends, counsellors, coaches and gurus on ‘who we should become, and how to be better’. They have come to believe that they need more knowledge, a better strategy, tactics or plan. I suggest that in that process we have forgotten who we really are.

Grieving people need the know-how to navigate their new world, but the best you can do is point them in the right direction, and remind them who they already are and what they can become.

The answer, my friends, is not blowing in the wind. It is found within each one of us.

You can find Bill’s tips for Christmas for grieving people here.

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