The Folly of Giving Advice

I’m watching a young family self-destruct. I cast caution to the wind and offer some advice. A foolish move.

The story: Two young physicians are taking part in mediation, ending their five year marriage. They have built a reservoir of misery for themselves and their child. After just one meeting, I thought I knew how they could avert disaster.

He is smart, charming and articulate, qualities that attract, no doubt attracted her. But though soft spoken, he is a very angry man. Now that their marriage is almost over, his anger has taken center stage, sometimes covert and subtle, but often sharp and direct. She says it is what has driven her away, and she sees herself as the victim in their drama.

But when his verbal saber slices the air, as he thrusts, she parries. They are frozen in this dance, and are on the brink of waging legal warfare. Their child is young, so they have many years ahead to play their parts.

My ego gets in the way of wisdom, so in private I give him advice: get therapeutic help. Seek the source of your rage, try to understand and overcome it.

My advice to her: with your ardent defensive reactions to his anger, you’re turning control of your life over to the very man you’re trying to escape. Get some help to figure out how you can change your responses. Don’t live with the hope or expectation that you can best him at this game, or that he is the one who will change.

Neither acknowledges nor attends to what I urge upon them. Just the opposite. She pays no heed and changes the subject. He’s resentful and withdraws. My advice may have been sound. Offering it was not.

I step back and examine my folly, and bring my failed experience to a thoughtful colleague. And she says: you’ve stepped across a boundary and taken on a role that is not yours to play. You can’t change their lives with motivation that is yours, not theirs.

Words I might have spoken to another, but did not speak to myself in my rush to rescue them. They had not come to me for salvation.

Good advice may be a great gift, but giving it in a constructive way is an art. My knowledge of this pair was superficial, their situation far more complex than it initially appeared. An empathic listening connection had barely begun. With meager acquaintance, one cannot know what is best for someone else.

Even with close friends or family members, unsolicited advice is usually an unwelcome intrusion into another ‘s personal life, suggesting that they are not capable of working out their own issues, a lack of due regard. In this circumstance, I should at least have asked whether my advice was wanted, and posed the question in a way that allowed for either a yes or no answer.

There are some things I can do in the role of mediator (not savior), or as a friend or family member, that might be helpful, and which I may still have the opportunity to do with my young clients. I could share my personal experiences in dealing with anger, my own and in responding to that of another, information they could choose to make use of or ignore, but which would not be a show of disrespect. And I could ask questions that would help them  explore possible options going forward and then consider the likely consequences of each path that could be taken. This could take considerable time but it would be time well spent.

In the end, wisely or not, we usually act on what we have come to believe is our best course of action, not on what someone else tells us to do. (Especially not on what a parental figure suggests!)

Best we share our own experience, give of ourselves, not advice, and offer our analytical skills. The rest is up to the listener.