Five Ways to Give Poor Advice

Giving poor advice is a form of art. Like other forms of art, it requires both talent and diligent practice. Here are some simple techniques you can use to hone in on your poor advice skills. All you need is a brief moment of silence (optional) and a vulnerable person who has not asked for any advice, opinions, solutions, or guidance whatsoever (essential).

  1. Give it at once. Do not waste time waiting until your target person has finished explaining their concerns. Poor advice must be shared as quickly as possible. You do not want them to think you are really listening.
  1. Pay no mind to objections. Know that your person may attempt to redirect the conversation or disagree with your solution. Although you may feel tempted to stop the advice-giving due to feeling unappreciated, do not give in. Similarly, ignore any hesitation by your person and proceed as planned. They will appreciate you later.
  1. Impose your worldview and values. Do not forget this part. What you believe goes. Likewise, what worked for your aunt last year will definitely work in this situation too.
  1. Show superiority. After all, you have figured out how to live. It is your responsibility to reach out to those unfortunate others who have not made it as far. Your person might even claim that their problems are complex. You know better. Now tell them!
  1. Be adamant that your person follow through with the advice. Poor advice is like good wine – it should never go to waste. Use words like “must” and “should”, and be clear that not doing what you suggest will be a mistake.1936896_100012509999_4257113_n

In rare cases, these steps may not suffice. You may have encountered an ungrateful soul who insists on finding their own path or stubbornly rejects your unsolicited help. If so, your best course of action is to exit the conversation with an audible sigh and an at-least-I-tried expression on your face, thereby communicating your concern for their wellbeing. One day, they will regret not taking your word. Who could possibly find their way without your clear and simple directions? And when that day comes, you better mention you told them so…

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How to Say What You Need to Say

If you learned right now you only had a few hours left to live, with no ability to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having expressed to the people in your life?

Assuming you do have the ability to communicate, what stops you from saying what you need to say?

Some of us have been socialized to not share how we feel. Many families avoid uncomfortable conversations and discourage open expression of feelings and concerns. Sometimes we get silenced or ridiculed when trying to say what’s on our mind. And some of us walk around with the idea that in order to be strong, we need to never be vulnerable.IMG_1122

But the things left unsaid can get heavy. The longer we carry them, the heavier they get. Personal truths, unspoken apologies, feelings towards those who mean more to us than they know…

The simplest way to let go of the weight is to say what we need to say – to a trusted friend, to a therapist, or directly to the person we need to address.

I personally have found this remarkably difficult, but the more I do it anyway the easier it gets. Now, this does not mean that I like being vulnerable. The last time I was about to tell someone exactly what was weighing on me, my heart was beating out of my chest and my hands were shaking. Not pleasant. But afterwards I felt like I had put down an immense backpack and the relief made it all worth it.

So how do we do this? As far as I know, there is no fixed recipe for authentic expression, but there are some things we can keep in mind that could make the process just a little smoother:

  1. Find the core

Ask yourself what is the most important part of all the things you would like to get out. What weighs on you the most? Finding the core of what you need to say helps focus your attention. You don’t need to say everything at once.

  1. Set your objective

Be honest with yourself about what you want to accomplish. Perhaps you would like other people to change, but this may not happen. Similarly, we cannot control the outcome of the conversation. What we can do, however, is to focus on the process. The act of expressing yourself needs to be practiced over and over again, regardless of the outcome. By making the objective be expression for the sake of personal growth and emotional relief, there is no way to fail.

  1. State your intention

Before you start, let the person know what your intention is. Oftentimes, people react to personal sharing by giving unsolicited advice and telling us how to stop feeling the way we do. This can be pretty unhelpful. To make this less likely, express that you simply want to share how you feel, talk about something that has been on your mind, clarify something that may have been obscure, or whatever else you are wanting to do. If needed, let the person know that you are not looking for an opinion or a solution, and that you would simply want them to hear you out.

  1. Focus on your own feelings

Here is something important: No one can tell you how to feel. Your feelings are all yours and you are the one who gets to define them. Therefore, when you focus on your own emotional experiences, disagreement becomes irrelevant. Your feelings are valid, even when others feel differently. Try not to minimize your feelings (e.g. “I am hurt, but it’s not a big deal”) or use hesitation words (e.g. “I guess I sort of feel a little frustrated”). Whatever you feel is okay.

  1. Show interest in mutual understanding

Once you have shared what you wanted to share, the listener might be feeling some kind of way. If you care about the relationship, it might be a good idea to express interest in hearing them out as well. If they do share, try to listen as non-defensively as you can and ask them questions to get a better idea of where they are coming from.

  1. Ask for what you want

Most people I know are poor mind readers. They do not automatically know what I want from them unless I tell them straight up. I can wait and hope and leave hints, but this can get very confusing. Asking for what you want is not a sign of weakness. It is the simplest way to let others know how they can be helpful.

  1. Observe

The process of being authentic is scary and liberating. As you step outside your silent comfort zone and start expressing yourself more openly, you may notice reactions within yourself you did not anticipate. Maybe you’ll find yourself avoiding eye contact. Maybe you’ll feel a knot in your stomach. Perhaps you will feel tempted to shift the focus away from yourself. It’s all part of the experience and nothing is wrong with that.

  1. Repeat

This may feel like the strangest thing to do, but the more you practice openness, the more it becomes a part of your way of being. Being authentic and open does not guarantee that others will respond with acceptance and understanding, but it can free up a lot of space in your mind and heart. And putting the weight down can feel pretty amazing.

Bonding vs. Bridging

I sat this weekend in Teachers College at Columbia University and listened to Dr. Isaac Prilleltensky talk about prerequisites for peace. And by peace he did not mean simply the absence of violence, but the presence of justice, wellbeing, and opportunities for all. Dr. Prilleltensky is a leading scholar, researcher, and writer in the area of individual and community wellbeing and his talk covered a lot of material, but the concepts of bonding and bridging got particularly stuck in my head.

IMG_2825In short, bonding refers to our tendency to relate to people who are like us in some way, whereas bridging refers to the times when we reach out to people whom we perceive as being different. This is of course nothing new and many writers and thinkers have examined the human (and the evolutionary) habit of favoring those who are in our in-group, while looking with suspicion at those who belong to the out-group – basically all those who are not in our own circle.

It is easy for people of privileged groups to get comfortable with bonding and put little, if any, effort into building bridges. After all, if you have privileged status in society, bonding with those who are also privileged or have a similar social status feels good! In circles where everyone is on the same social page, there can be this cozy sense of community and shared meaning, and little risk of anyone bringing up uncomfortable topics like oppression and inequality. As soon as the party gets more inclusive, perhaps to the point of people of less-privileged groups joining the space, things can get more complex. Suddenly the party people have to decide whether to keep the conversation at a superficial level so that everyone can appear to relate, or really make a conscious effort to listen to each other and broaden the conversation to cover both shared and unique experiences. This may not sound too difficult, but the thing is that unique experiences of less-privileged people often have to do with social location and that can bring up aspects of reality that may be hard to acknowledge for those who are not directly affected by oppression.

An Icelandic family friend once had a conversation with my mother where she shared her frustration with immigrant employees at her workplace, whom she perceived as always hanging out with each other instead of socializing with the Icelandic staff. When she was asked if she ever approached them first, she got flustered and stumbled on her words. Perhaps she had never thought of that. And perhaps that would have required her to make an effort to understand experiences that are very different from hers and work to create a common ground on which to build a possible friendship.

Listening to Dr. Prilleltensky, I thought of my own experiences as a foreigner in the U.S. and how that opened the door for me to redefine my in-group. Without the friends and family that had surrounded me back home, I found myself connecting very strongly with other international students and now I wonder if that was perhaps an example of bonding and bridging happening at the same time. Our shared experiences of being foreigners in a sea of (mostly white) Americans and our exhaustion from juggling the demands of a U.S. higher education program created a sense of cohesion and safety. At the same time, we reached across racial, cultural, linguistic, religious, and class differences and built stronger friendships than I could ever have imagined.

Dr. Prilleltensky and I agree that both bonding and bridging are important. They represent some of the fundamental processes of human interaction and in order to create decent societies we have to do both. However, what I find very interesting is how people of privileged groups sometimes feel entitled to bonding, while expecting people of minority or underprivileged groups to do all the bridging. Immigrants are given the side eye for hanging out with each other in Icelandic lunch rooms; international students are criticized for not engaging more with domestic students; Latinos are supposed to assimilate and stop speaking Spanish to their kids; African Americans are expected to integrate. Meanwhile, dominant groups at times reserve the right to keep to themselves, stay in their suburbs on the weekends, send their kids to after-school activities with other kids who look like them, and invite some but not others to dinner on Sundays.

This isn’t helpful. Because for minority groups and underprivileged populations, bonding creates an essential opportunity for sharing resources, getting support, expressing feelings and ideas safely, and gathering strength before heading back out into a society that does not view them as equals.

At the end of the day, we all need to bond. And then, we need to reach out to each other to make sure that everyone gets a place at the table. Bridges are best built from a position of equality and shared power. And safe bridges make this world a lot more interesting to navigate!

The Power of Abuse

An NFL player was cut from his team on September 8, 2014. The Baltimore Ravens let their running back Ray Rice go after a video was released of him punching his fiancée out cold in an elevator. But this is already old news to anyone who dabbles in social media and/or follows American news stories.

Even Fox news covered the incident. But there, the focus seemed to be more on why the knocked-out woman decided to stay with her fiancé and – wait for it – even marry him! After all, who would want to stay in an abusive relationship? Obviously, she must have instigated the fight herself, deserved it, or even wanted it. Or simply be a woman of poor decisions. Right?

Wrong. Abusive relationships tend to be very hard to break out of and many abused partners (often women) need multiple attempts and a ton of support before they manage to leave the situation. That is, if they manage to leave at all. Perpetrators are often very skilled at getting their abused partner to believe that it was all their fault to begin with and that it will never ever happen again if only they do X, Y, and Z right. Partner abuse is not about loss of control. On the contrary, it tends to be all about control – controlling another person’s behavior and decisions, and keeping them under the abuser’s thumb.

The problem with focusing on the abused person’s decision to stay in the relationship is that it minimizes the power of abuse. And on top of that, it makes it seem like partner abuse is as much due to the survivor’s poor decisions, as to the abuser’s oppression. As if the responsibility is shared equally. Does this sound familiar? Rape myths function in the same way. And in both cases, survivors tend to be women and perpetrators tend to be men.

So… as with rape, let’s place the responsibility where it belongs – with the abuser – and leave the survivor out of it.

Pushing for Change

IMG_2784I often notice when people have goals that revolve around changing another grown-up individual, either a partner, parent, friend, or another significant person who is behaving in an annoying, careless, rigid, or even harmful way. People want all kinds of change in relationships. They want their adult daughter to be more appreciative, a husband to be more considerate with the in-laws, a dad to stop smoking, a partner to be honest… Most of us have someone we would like to change in some way and chances are we have already tried. From the observer’s perspective, it is easy to see how this is more likely to lead to exhaustion, frustration, and disappointment, than actual change.

What I find harder to see is when I fall into that same trap. I have caught myself so many times feeling invested in someone else changing and I have voluntarily entered a field of work that is all about facilitating some form of change. Some of my best supervisors and mentors along the way have at times caught this for me and gently pointed out when I was getting far ahead of myself, being a bit too enthusiastic and ready to make progress in someone else’s life, when I could have been more helpful by simply joining the person exactly where they were at. I have also had to sit myself down more than once and remember that while I can work with people to make change in their lives, I cannot make that change for them. It sure is tempting though… Outside the office it can get even harder. The more invested we are personally in a particular relationship and the more other people’s actions influence our wellbeing and goals, the trickier it gets to accept that we are really only in charge of our own selves.

Although William Glasser’s reality therapy is not one of my main approaches to counseling, I appreciate the emphasis it places on being in charge of our own behavior – and acknowledging that we cannot control anyone else. Accepting that we cannot change other people does not mean that we must accept the status quo in every aspect of life. Some things really do need to change. Social change, for example, does not happen without efforts and energy spent influencing large groups of people. In interpersonal relationships, however, we can easily get stuck for a long time waiting, hoping, and pushing for change, when the object of change does not share our agenda.

So what can we do, when the people in our lives are out of bounds? Sometimes there are no simple answers, such as when a person is trapped in an abusive relationship with no easy way out. At other times, there are things we can do to re-channel our energy. For example, we can communicate directly what we want and what we do not find acceptable, seek and accept support, and take steps to protect our own wellbeing – perhaps by stepping away from toxic interactions or exiting unhealthy relationships.

And sometimes we may want to sit back, breathe for a minute, and ask ourselves:

Is what I am doing getting me what I want?