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Giving Advice

May 6, 2010 | by Emuna Braverman

You’re only qualified to give advice when you recognize how little you really know.

I once went to a parenting class led by a mother of very young children. Someone with slightly older kids had a question about discipline. “You just tell them no,” replied the teacher. Since I was already the mother of teenagers, I could only shake my head in mute disbelief. “Just tell them no? If only…”

But before condemning this (still) naive mother, I thought back to myself at that age. In my 20’s everything seemed so simple. The world was black and white. I had an answer to every question. And I probably also said “just tell them no” or something equally ridiculous like “Children are blank slates. You can shape them into whatever you want them to be.” Ha! I was free and easy with my advice because I knew it all.

With age came real wisdom -- the recognition that I actually know very little. Which is why I was surprised to discover the teaching in Ethics of Our Fathers that suggests that 50 is the age for advice. When I turned 50 (we won’t specify exactly how many years ago that was!), I read that idea and scratched my head.

“The age for advice? But I know less now than I ever did. How can I possibly give advice?”

“Maybe that’s why you can,” suggested my husband who, though slightly younger than me (which he never tires of pointing out) is much wiser. “Maybe you’re only really qualified to give advice when you truly recognize how little you know.”

Giving advice is a very serious responsibility.

The paradox actually makes sense. Giving advice is a very serious responsibility. I think few of us recognize the impact our words can have. People are frequently quoting back to me things I told them 20 years ago, words of which I have no memory (and sometimes don’t believe it’s possible I actually uttered them!) that affected their choices or their approach to certain situations. It’s frightening.

Every day on the radio there are talk show hosts freely dispensing advice to their listeners whose sole contact with them has been about 20 seconds of air time. Yet real lives and real life choices are at stake.

Therapists do it (although they have a little more time). Teachers do it. Rabbis do it. Spouses and friends do it also.

We all respond to situations described by others with well-intentioned suggestions even though our reaction is usually based on limited information and maybe not be well thought out. Nevertheless we proffer a definitive course of action to the confused supplicant.

This is not irresponsible only because we don’t have all the facts – or all the wisdom! – but also because we aren’t the ones who have to live with the consequences. Although we may have to help pick up the pieces…

If the wise person can, as the saying goes, learn from the mistakes of others then I make this suggestion (I was going to say “offer this advice” but I caught myself!): Listen carefully to your friend in need. Help them clarify the issues at stake. Try to be an impartial third party. Don’t offer an opinion.

And most of all, hold back on the advice. The choices they make should be theirs and theirs alone.

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