The Gift of Presence, The Perils of Advice

Wednesday, April 27, 2016 - 5:00 am

The Gift of Presence, The Perils of Advice

When my mother went into a nursing home not long before she died, my wife and I were told that, for a modest increase in the monthly fee, the staff would provide a few extra services to improve her quality of life. We gladly paid, grateful that we could afford it.

Now in our mid-seventies, my wife and I have no imminent need for assisted living or nursing care. But the house we live in is, by definition, a two-person residential facility for the aging. Here at what we fondly call The Home, it’s not uncommon for one of us to try “improve” the other’s quality of life by offering “extra services.” Unfortunately, those services often take the form of advice.

A few years ago, my wife gave me some advice that struck me as — how shall I say? — superfluous. Remembering our experience with my mother, I said, “Could I pay a little less this month?” To this day, that line gives us a chance to laugh instead of getting defensive when one of us attempts, as both of us do now and then, to give the other unsolicited and unwanted “help.”

Advice-giving comes naturally to our species, and is mostly done with good intent. But in my experience, the driver behind a lot of advice has as much to do with self-interest as interest in the other’s needs — and some advice can end up doing more harm than good.

Last week I got a call from a man who’d recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He’d emailed his bad news to a few family members and friends, one of whom had come over right away. “How are you feeling?” his friend asked. “Well, as I said in my email, I’m feeling amazingly at peace with all this. I’m not worried about what lies ahead.”

The friend replied, “Look, you need to get a second opinion. At the same time, you should start exploring complementary medicine. You should also sign up for a meditation program, and I know a good book that can get you started down that path.”

I asked my caller how that response had made him feel. “I’m sure my friend meant well,” he said, “but his advice left me less at peace.”

I told him I’d have felt the same way, and offered this image: Imagine that I need support with a serious problem, when along comes a guy with advanced CPR certification. He’s so eager to show off his skills that he isn’t able to hear my true need. Instead, he starts administering chest compressions and “rescue breathing,” even though I’m perfectly able to breathe for myself. Now I have another big problem as I try to fight off the “helper” who’s smothering me.

I asked my caller how he would have felt if his friend had simply said, “How great that you’re at peace! Tell me more.” “That would have been wonderful,” he replied. “But everyone I talked to had advice for me, including a relative who said I needed to join her church before it was too late.”

I asked how he’d been feeling recently — he said he’d been feeling afraid. “Do you want to talk about your fear?”, I asked. He talked while I listened and asked a few more questions. When we were done, he told me that some measure of peace had returned. It was a peace that had come from within him, not from anything I’d said. I’d simply helped clear some rubble that blocked his access to his own soul.

Photo by Andreas Bloch (Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)

My misgivings about advice began with my first experience of clinical depression thirty-five years ago. The people who tried to support me had good intentions. But, for the most part, what they did left me feeling more depressed.

Some went for the nature cure: “Why don’t you get outside and enjoy the sunshine and fresh air? Everything is blooming and it’s such a beautiful day!” When you’re depressed, you know intellectually that it’s beautiful out there. But you can’t feel a bit of that beauty because your feelings are dead — and being reminded of that gap is depressing.

Other would-be helpers tried to spruce up my self-image: “Why so down on yourself? You’ve helped so many people.” But when you’re depressed, the only voice you can hear is one that tells you that you’re a worthless fraud. Those compliments deepened my depression by making me feel that I’d defrauded yet another person: “If he knew what a worm I am, he’d never speak to me again.”

Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.
Aye, there’s the rub. Many of us “helper” types are as much or more concerned with being seen as good helpers as we are with serving the soul-deep needs of the person who needs help. Witnessing and companioning take time and patience, which we often lack — especially when we’re in the presence of suffering so painful we can barely stand to be there, as if we were in danger of catching a contagious disease. We want to apply our “fix,” then cut and run, figuring we’ve done the best we can to “save” the other person.

During my depression, there was one friend who truly helped. With my permission, Bill came to my house every day around 4:00 PM, sat me down in an easy chair, and massaged my feet. He rarely said a word. But somehow he found the one place in my body where I could feel a sense of connection with another person, relieving my awful sense of isolation while bearing silent witness to my condition.

By offering me this quiet companionship for a couple of months, day in and day out, Bill helped save my life. Unafraid to accompany me in my suffering, he made me less afraid of myself. He was present — simply and fully present — in the same way one needs to be at the bedside of a dying person.

It’s at such a bedside where we finally learn that we have no “fix” or “save” to offer those who suffer deeply. And yet, we have something better: our gift of self in the form of personal presence and attention, the kind that invites the other’s soul to show up. As Mary Oliver has written:

“This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”

I leave you with two pieces of advice — a flagrant self-contradiction for which my only defense is Emerson’s dictum that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (1) Don’t give advice, unless someone insists. Instead, be fully present, listen deeply, and ask the kind of questions that give the other a chance to express more of his or her own truth, whatever it may be. (2) If you find yourself receiving unwanted advice from someone close to you, smile and ask politely if you can pay a little less this month.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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  • Tracy, from Bliss This Home

    I definitely know active listening and being with someone in their pain/confusion is best approach. This is how volunteers are trained at Samaritans (suicide prevention); it’s the most effective strategy for callers in distress/despair… and so many people I listened to felt much better at the end of our call. Advice giving is not allowed, even when the person asks for some. Instead, like the takeaways at end of article: “be fully present, listen deeply, and ask the kind of questions that give the other a chance to express more of his or her own truth, whatever it may be.”

    I do think it’s harder with close friends; I tend to want to “fix” or guide the person when I can see an issue or a solution that he/she cannot see himself/herself (and when I know my friend very well and can suggest ideas that fit with her views/values). I agree with the commentor who wrote: “Most of the time people do NOT do these things in order to look good or impress other people…Sometimes people are in a state where they can’t see beyond the hole that they are in and they need a helping hand to reach in and pull them out.” Some people are too down (including shame) to even ask for advice, or are wallowing to the point where they cannot see options. But giving advice HAS backfired a few times for me (person feels worse), so now I’m trying to cut back.

    Thanks for the reminder, Mr. Palmer.

  • Mary Wyatt

    “I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.”
    ― Edna St. Vincent Millay

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  • Peta Shepherd

    This has come at a time where I am trying to support a dear friend who’s belovec 19 year old son took his own life on Tuesday. I will remember your words

  • Despite disagreeing about the soul wanting to “be fixed,” I agree with the premise. Witnessing and validating someone’s experience as is, in my work, a foundational activity. Recently someone recently came over and just sat on the couch and rested, eye shut, wrapped up in the blanket they arrived with. My partner and I did our thing, saying and doing nothing.

  • Windy

    I loved this and will heed its message long and well. Thank you for writing a much needed article!

  • Alex

    Tanya, totally agree……thanks for putting that feeling into words for me

  • Eva Beva

    the most sensible comment i have read so far

  • Eva Beva

    very good points here

  • Sally Kidder Davis

    Wonderful reminder for all of us. Thank you!

  • Abbegail

    Thank you for your honest account of depression. Mine was exactly the same, and I delayed my treatment trying to follow everyone’s well-meaning advice to “just” do this or that. I didn’t have anyone offer to just be with me, but I did have a few close friends who listened when I needed them.

    In my work as a holistic nurse coach, I provide pure presence and deep listening to my clients. I can’t say what’s best for them; it is their own unique experience. I can help them find their own answer if that’s what they desire. Last week one client told me that just being present and listening has made all the difference to him. I’m on the right path and blessed I was able to provide that for him.

    Thank you for spreading the message that presence and an interested ear are often all that is required.

    I hope it is okay to tell you about a wonderful resource that should be launching in the next week. It’s called Happytheapp and it’s a mobile app that connects you with a live, listening, caring person. A person who’s only purpose is to listen to you. The creators recognized the lack of this in our society and the importance of a caring, compassionate ear. They have recruited thousands of caring, giving people (referred to as Happy Givers!) who are honored to listen to anyone in need.

  • lloyd stool

    I don’t think I’ve ever gotten good advice. I’m 68.

  • Mary Koenig

    A very helpful article, one I will benefit from. As a retired nurse it is difficult for me to not give advice when I’m not asked for it.

  • Alan Ter Morshuizen

    Deep wisdom there!
    Thanks for sharing from your own journey.

  • Love this. A reminder of the healing power of being present. Thank you

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  • Carlos

    Can I pay a little less this month Mr. Palmer. ☺

  • ROSEMARIE

    I HAVE LIVED AND RELATE TO THIS ARTICLE. ONE CAVEAT, HOWEVER. WHEN SOME ONE IS VOCALIZING ABOUT SUICIDE. DON’T ASSUME THEY ARE JUST SEEKING ATTENTION.

  • Yes, this: “The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is.” (Though, I’d perhaps add becoming.)

    Coaching is a part of my work, and I must confess that one of my biggest challenges is in getting the balance right when I feel the urgent pull for answers/guidance/advice/action steps from those I work with, especially in the modern world with its call for constant action and doing. Yet I know the power of holding the space for stillness and deep, inner listening.

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  • Kyle Johnson

    wow, i’ve been meditating on this for a while, thankyou.

  • Marty

    I think people sometimes confuse active listening with acceptance, or even approval. I’ve observed a good friend who actively listens very well however his use of “I understand” or “I can see why you feel that way” seems to give the speaker the impression that their thinking (or analysis, or judgement) is healthy when it isn’t.

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  • vickiheidorn

    Loved Phyllis McGinley

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  • Belinda Brummer

    Carl Rogers has contributed so much to the efficacy of ‘helpers’ with his person-centric approach to psychotherapy (and he extends this to any ‘helping’ person) in his book titled On Becoming a Person. Ground breaking at the time, the notion of listening, with authenticity, congruence and positive regard, to the experiences of others was new. So was his belief that given the right conditions people can identify for themselves what hurts them and find their own way to personal growth. Before Rogers, people were told what was wrong with them by ‘experts’ and prescribed ‘a remedy’ that did not take into account the person’s own experiences. The esteemed Dr Oliver Sacks demonstrated wonderfully in his book Awakenings (and again in Seeing Voices) how treating people, even severely affected people, as individuals with their own unique set of experiences was more successful than ‘expert-led’ advice. Personal growth comes not from the experiences of others but in having the courage and space to understand and positively regard one’s own experiences.

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  • Cearainjoy

    This took my breath away with its truth: “The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.” What a beautiful read and what a beautful person. Thank you.

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  • Brian Hassett

    My wife and I have been married fifty-five years and partners for sixty. She is a counselor by training and profession. I am highly sensitive and wary of advice, sometimes over-reacting to some perceived judgment embedded in advice. The best back-and-forth between us is never pointed or pushy but instead based upon the approach developed by Carl Rogers, which concentrates on hearing the other person’s statements accurately. Both of us ask for advice when we need it.

  • Bob Rubin

    As Carson McCuller’s said, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” This advice (Or should I use another word?) can make it all a little less lonely.

  • Mary Lefebvre

    He doesn’t say you can’t ask questions. Assisting in exploration can help a person rise from their stickiness in their own way.

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