On giving advice

As a Psychologist, I try really hard not to give my clients advice.  Of course, I offer a lot of different tools and strategies for people to try out, or to help them think or feel differently about their situation.  I reflect back information and reframe it in a different way, to help clients understand things from a different, and hopefully more useful, perspective.  

downloadBut when it comes to major life decisions, I straight up tell people that it’s not my place to tell them what to do with their life. Decisions like: Should I take this job?  Should I end my marriage?  Should I move to another country?.  I might suggest that we can problem-solve together, we can explore the ‘pros and cons’ and look at each of the options from a more rational, or sometimes more emotional (depending on what is needed), viewpoint.  But ultimately, I believe that there really are no ‘right’ decisions in life and that, the only way you find out what you want, is by picking something and doing it (and then, if it’s not working, picking something else and trying that).

I believe that finding happiness, fulfillment and meaning is sometimes a trial and error process.

Anyway, this is a very roundabout way of me saying that, because I don’t think it’s my place to give advice, I also really, really don’t like receiving it.

I think this mainly comes from my own personal experience of being pretty significantly unwell with depression.  I got an awful lot of advice from counsellors and therapists at the time – none of it particularly helpful.  I was also a very ‘good little client’ and diligently did all of my therapy homework, only to find that none of it was really helpful because none of it addressed the root of the problem (which required some pretty major changes to the way I was living my life).

Then, quite awfully I think, I was told that it was my own fault that I wasn’t getting better – that I wasn’t happier – because I simply wasn’t trying hard enough.  Ironically though, this actually turned out to be the best thing that was ever said to me because, even in my unwell state, I was able to think, “Wow, that’s a shitty thing to say to a client who is obviously desperate to get well.  I bet I could do a way better job as a therapist than you.”  

Lo and behold, six years or so later, I’m a therapist trying really hard to do a better job with my clients than my therapists did with me.

What I really wanted at the time wasn’t any particular tools or strategies (although I know at other times these have been super helpful), but someone to just really listen to what I was saying.  Someone to try really hard to empathise (not just sympathise) and to ask me what I thought would really make me happy (and what was stopping me from doing it).

The reason I’ve thought of this whole story is because, sometimes when you have a bit of a rant to a colleague or a friend, what you’ll often get is a whole lot of unsolicited advice.  A whole lot of problem-solving, without much listening and understanding, or asking, “What do you think you want to do about it?”  

It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine and I bet I’m not the only one.  So these days I find myself either ranting to the right people (people who I know will listen, understand and not offer advice unless asked) or gently giving a bit of feedback: “You know, I actually already know what I want to do about this problem.  I just needed to get it off my chest, because it feels good when someone just listens and understands.”

But I wonder, has anyone else tried something like this?  And if you did, I’d love to hear how it went.

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