To really help, don’t give advice, just be

a couple of days ago I came across a blog post titled “The Gift Of Presence, the Perils of Advice.” Writer Parker Palmer examines what it means to offer advice, and whether it is better to just shut up and “be.”

Spoiler alert: he argues that we often give advice because we feel like we need to get something out of giving it.

Well, I’ve been rolling his ideas over in my mind all weekend, and one in particular just stays with me. He wrote

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.

This idea, that we really just want to be witnessed, is often at the heart of day when I interview a nursing home resident for a story at work. It is the focus of my action when I’m teaching and listening to a student who is feeling unsure of himself.  And even though the call isn’t about suffering,  it’s definitely at the heart of the minutes I get on the phone with my partner, when he calls to say hi at the end of the day.

And because of my training as a journalist, and as a writing instructor, and because of who I am, I think I’m generally pretty good at being present in this way. In addition,  I have the rare luck of having jobs that allow me to offer myself to the person who needs to be heard.

But the snag lies in the moments when I am just listening so I can get to the good part of the interview, or when I offer some “writerly” advice that my student maybe doesn’t even need, just so that I can get back to grading. (And oh, grading. That’s the real work of teaching, isn’t it? )

There it is – me thinking about getting what I need, just as Palmer has written.

So what’s one to do about  this state of things, this give and take? How do we give our listening ear, and then not give any more?  I think we shut up and sit on the receiving end a little. I don’t mean fulfill our unspoken need, but instead sit in the light of connection with another person.

As the giver of a listening ear, I offer the lonely resident a chance to connect with someone. As the listening instructor, I give my student the chance to get something off his chest.  But instead of my unspoken need to feel good about myself, or fix a problem,  I need to see what’s in it for me beyond the moment. It’s my responsibility to try and learn from each situation.

In an anecdote about a round of depression he faced, Palmer recounts the gift of a friend who came to massage his feet each day for several weeks.

“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…” he writes.

Although there was suffering the situation he describes,  we all know learning to be present in the good times is equally important to connecting with someone at this level. And if we can refrain from giving advice in the good moments and just bask in the fun of those moments, it seems likely we can do that in the dark times too.

Ah… did I just try and offer some unnecessary advice there?





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