The best advice is to not advise

“If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind.” — Buddha

In our family we have had some heavy-duty advice-givers. At times they were relentless in assuming an “I know best” attitude.

Nothing was off limits: Where to vacation, how to raise children, attend church, relate to a spouse. The list goes on.

Articles and books have been written about advice-giving. The best conclusion they offer about giving advice can be summed up in one word: Don’t. At least don’t give advice unless you specifically asked or were absolutely sure you are competent to do.

Because my husband is known as a person who researches everything, he is asked for advice from time to time, especially by our adult children. That is quantitative advice, based on researched facts, easily given and discarded.

I am thinking now of a different kind of advice, more qualitative, more fraught with emotional tension and possibilities for misinterpretation. Perhaps a close friend or family member may need a strong shoulder and a listening ear because of something going on in her life that bothers her immensely.

As we listen, the tendency to offer advice comes to the fore. Perhaps we’ve even been through the same land mine of decisions as our friend. Perhaps we found a solution that worked well. Seeing someone close to us in such turmoil and indecision sparks the tendency to walk through our solution, the one we found so satisfactory.

That’s the time to stop and remember our solution may not be (and probably isn’t) best. Difficult as it may seem, the dear one who confided in us needs to find a personal solution. It’s not advice the person needs, no matter how lovingly and carefully given, it’s our attention, our sincere, unwavering attention.

Two experts on advice, Reeshad Dalal of George Mason University and Silvia Bonaccio of the University of Ottawa conducted a study in which participants were asked to imagine making decisions. They were given different kinds of advice. Then they were asked which mode of advice was the most useful and satisfying for making their decisions. As it turned out, information about different options was the most useful to the group of participants.

According to an article in Psychology Today, “When advice comes in the form of information the decision maker still feels like they have some autonomy.”

Autonomy is important to both young and old. Sometimes we who have lived long lives feel we know best how to manage difficult situations. We are even tempted, at times, to resort to the old platitudes and mores of a by-gone era. Platitudes don’t carry any weight of wisdom or information helpful in decision making. What was right and good and useful 50 or more years ago may not work today.

When family or friends or especially the young people come to us asking for advice, it is our duty, even our privilege to help them.

According to research in this area, the best way to do this is to listen quietly as they outline the situation, then help them make an informed decision by going over the facts about each option.

It is important also to let them know we are always there for them, to listen with love, not judgment.

Irene Marinelli writes a weekly column for The Dominion Post. Write her at

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