Have you ever noticed how other people's lives seem so easy to figure out? Their problems are so well defined, the solutions so clear-cut -- unlike your own problems, which are complicated and nuanced.
This is certainly the case with me sometimes.
One frustrating aspect about giving advice is summed up in the old saying, "Advice is least heeded when most needed."
In fact, in a letter Lord Chesterton wrote to his son in 1770, he said, "I wish to God that you had as much pleasure in following my advice, as I have in giving it to you."
See, parents? Not much has changed in the last couple of centuries.
During those times when others do turn to you for advice, here are six guidelines to go by.
- Wait until you're asked. It's tempting to jump in and tell others exactly what they need to do to get their lives straightened out -- after all, their problems are begging for your expert touch. However, unasked-for advice is really thinly veiled criticism. It usually goes ignored.
George Washington wrote, "Give not advice without being asked, and [then], do it briefly."
- Speak from experience. One evening during dinner with friends, a member of our group began telling another how she could improve some aspects of her web consulting and design business.
Her business did, in fact, need improvement, but with all due respect to the volunteer advisor, though his words may have been well-intentioned, he didn't really know what he was talking about. He had never been in business for himself, had never been a consultant, and knew nothing about design. Other than that, he was an expert.
The truth is, if you haven't been there, you're not in a position to tell someone else how to get there.
- Attack the problem, not the person. "You're lazy, disorganized and inefficient," isn't good advice. It's not even advice. It's merely an observation, and probably not an accurate one.
Understand that when a person seeks advice, he or she has made an important (and laudable) step in the right direction. Make sure, then, that your counsel focuses on pointing out the possible solution, rather than dwelling on the other person's faults and foibles.
- Focus on what needs to be done, which actions need to be taken. People need to know today what they can do today to start solving the problem today. Telling someone what they could have done yesterday or what they should have been doing all along is only telling them what they already know.
It's easy to point out the obvious; identifying workable solutions requires wisdom.
- Don't hesitate to tell the truth. When someone comes to you for advice, they need to hear the truth.
This part of the process is often difficult, and it should be. If it hurts them to hear it, it should hurt you to say it. But you do need to say it -- for their own good.
It's like the time Eli went to Samuel, asking him about the vision God had given him. The Bible says that Samuel was afraid to tell Eli, but Eli insisted, "Tell me everything."
1 Samuel 3:18 says, "So Samuel told Eli everything, he didn't hold anything back." [NLT]
Those who come to you for counsel deserve the same. Tell them the truth. But be sure you're telling them the empowering, solution-focused truth.
- The rest is up to them. If they have done their job, you are only one of many from whom they sought advice, because "many advisers make victory sure." (Proverbs 11:14 NIV)
Maybe they'll follow your advice; maybe they'll choose to act on the advice of someone else.
You cannot take responsibility for their problems, or their actions, but you can offer your best wisdom on what actions they should take. That's as much as you can do, and it's all you need to do.
OUR SOLEMN OBLIGATION
The ability to give good advice is as valuable as it is rare. That's why consultants -- the good ones, the ones who get results -- are well paid. Giving good advice is not as easy as it looks.
Remember the words of Solomon: The godly give good advice. (Proverbs 10:21 NLT)
When someone asks for your input, they have paid you an enormous compliment. It is our solemn obligation to approach the task seriously, thoughtfully, carefully and prayerfully.
Pastor James "Skip" French is the pastor of Highland Christian Church, 1500 Forest Hills Blvd., Bella Vista. Opinions expressed are those of the author.