Thursday, October 13, 2011

Free Advice

Have you ever noticed how as soon as you encounter a dilemma or decision in your life, there are people around you, regardless of the depth of your relationship, who will weigh in with their opinion of what you should do? There are some people who are resident experts in everything, at least in their own minds. People like that are usually to be avoided.

There are 3 Proverbs that stand out to me in regards to counsel and advice:

Proverbs 11:14 says, "For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers."

Proverbs 12:15 says, "The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice."

Proverbs 15:22 says, "Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed."

Counsel is something that we should seek, but we need to be cautious from whom we accept that counsel. Anyone with a strong opinion about a subject will weigh in on it. Think about the topics that you are passionate about and I am sure if you overheard a conversation by people who you knew, casually or more deeply, you may have a tendency to rush in with your two cents regarding the issue.

There are certain topics in life that are harder than others for people to contain their opinions. Politics. Religion. Child-rearing. These issues (and many more) raise high emotions in people. Some people get worked up and it's difficult to try to reason with them. Some people have developed their opinions over time, through constant questioning and a process of testing. Other people have had too much education for their own good. In other words, everything they needed to know, they learned in books and there has been no praxis in the development of their opinions. It's important to know who you're hearing from in the midst of advice giving.

Lately, I have come to a place where I am seeking advice, but it seems that some of the people who have weighed in on the subject are people from whom I would rather not hear. I have even come to the point of questioning their education considering that their advice seems to conflict with what mainstream academics might suggest.

My father always used to tell me that advice that was not asked for is advice ill-received. In other words, if you shell out advice that someone didn't ask for, chances are, they're probably not going to take it and may even resent you for giving it to them in the first place. I have done my best to abide by that simple truth by prefacing any advice that I might consider giving with a question to the recipient, determining whether or not they are really seeking advice or if they are just using me as a sounding board. Sometimes people just want to talk, or vent, and sometimes, they really are seeking advice. If I know what they're looking for up front, everyone will be better off in the end.

I have been missing my mom a lot lately. Mom had experience. She lived 72 years of life and seen many things. I was always convinced that she had a sixth "Mom" sense that gave her the ability to know when I was doing something wrong. She raised two boys who turned out pretty well. She endured the challenges of being a minister's wife for over forty years. She cared for the things with which she was entrusted. She made the most of every dollar that she had, stretching it out further than most people that I know. Sometimes she would offer advice about something that I wasn't really asking for, but that was a major exception rather than the rule. Most of the times when I would call her, I had purposed to gain some insight and wisdom from her experience in a particular matter. A lot of times, she understood without even asking whether I was seeking advice or if I was just using her as a sounding board, venting my feelings.

Much of what I know and have learned, I have learned from watching other people. My brother and I have joked that he was the one who would have to experience something to learn from it and I was the one who would learn from his experiences. I have said that the difference between knowledge and wisdom is that knowledge means you have learned from your mistakes while wisdom means you have learned from the mistakes of others. I am a watcher of people, gaining insight and knowledge wherever I can find it from people who I watch and who I trust. Yes, I have learned from mistakes of others, but I would much rather learn from their successes than their mistakes.

Advice is a tricky thing though. There are probably some simple rules that we could follow in doling out and taking advice. I have come up with 5 rules (there are probably a ton more, but 5 seemed like a good, round number) to follow in regards to advice, whether giving or receiving.

1. If you paint yourself as an expert on a subject, you darn well had better be, because if you're not, it will come back to you. There's nothing worse than a resident expert who doesn't know Jack about what they're talking about. The worst kind of "experts" are the ones who think that they are experts when in reality, they might not be much smarter than a 5th grader. If you give advice as an "expert," do it with humility and know what you know so you know if you're really an expert. It never hurts to tell someone that what you are about to say or have said is your opinion and even tell them how you came about forming that opinion. It will give them insight into the process in which you arrived at the advice you are giving.

2. ALWAYS verify that the advice that you are giving is advice that was asked for rather than free advice that might be resented later on. There are probably exceptions to this rule with younger children, but at some point (and I know my day is coming down the road with this one) children need to make decisions, wrong or right, and be faced with the results of those decisions. If someone legitimately wants your advice, they won't hesitate to be honest with you about this. If you notice any hesitancy whatsoever, probably best to just let them talk it out with no interference from you.

3. Be careful who you listen to. Sometimes well-meaning people can give out bad advice. There's nothing spiteful or intentionally misleading about it, it just happens. I certainly found this out as I observed and experienced the grief of others as well as my own grief. Some people give advice, particularly in difficult or awkward circumstances, that would best be ignored. In fact, some of it might be so bad that you should just go ahead and pretend that you never heard it to begin with. In the words of Charlie Sheen, you'll be winning! Make sure you have a pretty good handle on who it is that is giving you advice. If worse comes to worse, you can always say, "Thanks, I appreciate your concern. I will consider that." Then you can walk away and pretend you never heard it and they'll be none the wiser. Probably not a good idea to tell them they don't have a clue what they're talking about, unless they're in danger of corrupting others into drinking that tainted Kool-Aid or something like that.

4. Find a handful (3 or 4) of good people that you trust, preferably who have at least a little more life experience than you, and use them as your "sounding board." I have been blessed with a wife who is younger than me who is great at being my sounding board. She has a lot of wisdom and insight and I would be a fool not to listen. Plus, she has background in family systems and counseling, I guess that makes her an expert, although she might not admit it. I also have a few friends who I trust that can speak honesty into my life. A friend and colleague preached a sermon a few weeks ago about having people around you who have the ability to "edit" your life. In other words, they can speak truthful words to you in ways that you will receive. They can tell you when you're wrong, when you're off base, when you're being an idiot. Very good advice. When you find friends like this, hold onto them for a lifetime. They are invaluable.

5. Never underestimate the power of prayer in the midst of seeking advice. James 1:5 says, "If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you." God is more than willing to give us wisdom, be it through His word or through other people, if we simply ask for it. I put this as #5 because it's the most important one. If someone offers you something free, simply for asking, especially when that someone happens to be the God of Creation, it's probably a good idea to take him up on the offer.

I still have a lot to learn. My advice giving and taking will be challenged more and more in the days ahead, but I hope to learn from my mistakes and be able to celebrate my achievements in the area. I still miss my mom, a woman of wisdom, prayer, and discernment. I've reached for the phone a number of times in recent days, only to realize that my phone call would be futile. Thankfully, I do have others around me, they're not the same, but they certainly have wisdom and advice that they are more than willing to impart upon the likes of me.

I'm sure you can come up with at least 5 simple rules of your own. They could even be better than mine. However you approach advice giving or receiving, it's probably a good idea to make sure you have an approach, it'll save you a lot of headaches in the end. No one is an island, we weren't created to be alone, we were created for community. Take advantage of that every chance you get, especially when you need it most.

1 comment:

  1. You don't know how many times the phrase, "advice that was not asked for is advice ill-received" has popped in my mind over the years thanks to you sharing that with me years ago. I guess I wanted that advice at the time so it was received well ; )