Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Giving Advice - The Dark Side of Compassion?

I’ve been studying and writing about personal strengths for a long time. An interesting issue - what can happen when you take a good thing too far? Do bad things happen? Do personal strengths have a dark side?

Are there any personal strengths that don’t have a dark side? Take compassion, for example. Is it possible to take the desire to help others too far?

Philip Chesterfield, 18th century British statesman, hints that this may be so: "Advice is seldom welcome; and those who want it the most always like it the least."

One of my friends has an interesting idiosyncrasy. Whenever we talk, his way of interacting with me is to give me advice. I think he does this because he's intelligent and has a lot of practical experience. Plus, he's a really nice guy. He has a good heart, and I think he's just trying to be helpful.

What's odd is that he offers advice even when I haven't asked for it, and often it seems off-target, as if he doesn't know what he's talking about,

And he's not the only person I know who's quick to offer advice. I think people give it with a good spirit, just trying to be helpful. But in my experience, advice can be a risky business, and I don't think most people appreciate this.

What's so risky about trying to be helpful? How can you go wrong?

When you give advice, you put yourself in the position of trying to help solve the other person's problem. This well-intentioned act could have unwanted consequences.

For one thing, people who are having a bad day or who are dealing with trouble may not want your advice. They may only want you to hear them out while they vent and for you to be a sympathetic ear. They may just need encouragement. So when you give advice, it may strike a wrong chord. They may feel your advice implies that you see them as needy, uninformed or incompetent, while in fact they may feel that in spite of their distress, they know they can handle their own problems, thank you very much. Which is very often the case with healthy, intelligent, experienced people.

So...oops! A kind gesture may not turn out so well. Has that ever happened to you?

Another issue is that it's hard to solve another person's problem. The reason is that they have the background information related to the problem, and you don't. It's their life, not yours, and much of what's going on is unknown to you. That's why when you offer advice, sometimes the other person looks at you in a funny way, as if to say, "What? Where are you coming from?"

But let's say the person is needy, confused and lacks confidence. Say you make a suggestion or two. If they thank you and actually try what you've told them, that doesn't mean it's going to work out. And chances are it won't because, as I said, you don't have all the facts.

You may feel great that you've helped someone, that your knowledge of the world is substantial enough to help your friends. But if your advice doesn’t work, it might make matters worse. And they could blame you for it.

Even in the best case scenario, there are risks. Say someone needs help and you offer it. Say your advice is appropriate and has the desired effect. It actually solves their problem. Very likely, they'll feel gratitude. But if this becomes a pattern in your relationship, your support can create a dependency. This would be unfortunate, because people need to be able to solve their own problems. If you routinely come to their rescue, it can reinforce their perception of helplessness. This could prevent them from building the self-confidence and self-esteem they need to stand on their own two feet. So your advice would have helped keep them needy and dependent.

This is why I believe giving advice can be more risky than most people appreciate. I also believe that people often give advice because they feel comfortable in a "parent-child" relationship (where they are the parent), rather than in a relationship of equals.

It's something to watch out for.

But this doesn't mean that compassion is dangerous or wrongheaded or that you should stop helping people. I think the answer is to try to help people help themselves. As the old saying goes, "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for life."

In the best spirit of compassion, we become listeners, so we can understand what people are feeling and what they really need from us. It's a mistake to automatically assume they want us to give them "the answer."

We can encourage them, which means to affirm both their situation, their strengths and the possibilities.

If they are lacking information, tools, and other resources, we can help them find these things - without telling them what to do.

And if they are seriously ill or disabled, then we can go as far as our hearts will take us to help them with things they can’t do for themselves - until they can. If you’ve ever been a caretaker, you know there’s a fine line there, and you need to find out where it is.

I think the best spirit of helpfulness is to find out what people really need and give them enough support so they can help themselves. Because when they do that, the rewards are profound.

The best alternative to giving advice is to help people think for themselves...

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use photo purchased from


Euan said...

I have always loved the phrase "To rescue someone is to oppress them."

Sean said...

One of the biggest challenges of being a great friend is knowing when to give advice and when to just shut up, smile, and nod. Often people with difficulties know damn well what the solutions are, so they don't need the advice, they just need the support, friendship, and companionship.

Fit2B Mama said...

My sis-in-law pulled me aside to give me some advice this past week. I listened to her harder than usual. Why? Because she's been through a lot this past year. She is finally speaking from a place of hurt and real experience, and I could see love in her eyes. When I told her she was right, she nearly fell over!

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