My stepfather loves giving advice. It’s as if he has an advice-giving compulsion that drives him to share his thoughts with anyone who has a problem. I’ve seen him give advice to children, teenagers, grown men and women—sometimes within mere minutes of meeting them. The crazy thing is sometimes it really hits the spot. It absolutely shocks me what he gets away with saying to people and how sincerely they respond to his attention.
On the other side of the spectrum, Jack Nicholson once said, “Don’t ever give anybody your best advice, because they’re not going to follow it.” This sounds like the kind of man who has not had particularly positive experiences in guiding other people.
Let’s be honest, human beings are tricky. It’s almost impossible to tell how our words will be received. There’s a huge amount of risk involved with trying to help people. It can be truly discouraging to see good advice given with great intentions ignored time and again.
So how do we walk this line? How do we know when it’s time to speak into the lives of our friends, family, and acquaintances? Here are five things to consider when you want to talk to someone about their lives.
1. Check Your Motives
First things first. Giving advice without compassion or love is like giving CPR with a fire extinguisher: It has the potential to do far more harm than good. Ever hear a great sermon and think, “Oh I know someone who could really use this lesson!” I have. Many times. And not with a spirit of compassion. As ego-driven people, it’s easier to find and fix other people’s flaws than face our own. Jesus put it this way: “Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). Giving advice without adopting it is generally not a great idea.
2. Understand Your Relationship
During a domestic flight last year, I sat next to a middle-aged man who ended up giving me some great advice. This was the one time I would see him, and this contributed to his ability to speak honestly into my life. He saw a young man who was open to potentially vulnerable topics and used his anonymity to offer some advice.
Speaking into someone’s life requires an awareness of your differences. Who is the person in front of you? Are you peers? Are they coming to you for advice? Are they younger or older? Are you in a secular setting or faith community? Are you different genders or cultures? Sometimes a piece of advice is appropriate for one person and not for another. Be aware.
3. Ask Questions
Every once in a while I meet someone who gives advice with the flair of a college professor talking to freshmen. Chances are you have, too. There is a temptation to scratch that self-righteous itch when giving advice (see #1). Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote, “Advice is like snow: the softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and the deeper in sinks into the mind.”
Here’s some more good advice: Most people probably know what you want to tell them. So instead of teaching people what you think they need to hear, try asking questions that probe them to think for themselves.
“Do you think that’s such a great idea?”
“Why do you feel that?”
“Have you considered another way to solve it?”
In the scriptures, Jesus transforms minds and lives by using stories and questions to help people reconsider what they know. He asks people more questions than they ask him. Jesus Christ the Lord doesn’t try and answer everything!
4. Earn It
Someone once told me working with people is like working with currency. Every time we show ourselves to be reliable, helpful, caring or fun, we earn some “coin” with that person. When we disappoint, hurt or make them uncomfortable, we “spend” some of what we’ve earned. If we spend more than we’ve made, we go into debt with that person and the relationship is in the red.
Good advice has the potential to make someone uncomfortable. This isn’t a bad thing. But if you are too frank with someone, you have the chance of spending more coin than you’ve saved up. So don’t be afraid to work up to it. If you’re a loyal, reliable, caring person in their life, chances are you can say things other people couldn’t. You’ve earned the coin.
5. Love Unconditionally
Sometimes Jack Nicholson is right. Sometimes no matter your motives, relationship strength, questioning approach or coin earned, your advice will be ignored. The person you care about will make mistakes and hurt themselves and others. It’s moments like these that make us feel like we’ve failed or lost. But the truth is, life is often more forgiving than we realize. Even the most tragic events can have redeeming qualities.
God is in the business of turning seemingly hopeless consequences into life-giving miracles. God doesn’t give up on us, no matter how many times we ignore some pretty fantastic advice. “Dear friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. If we love each other, God remains in us and His love is made perfect in us” (1 John 4:11-12).
Don’t give up on people. Sometimes the best advice is presence. Henri Nouwen says it like this: “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.”
Advice is sometimes life-changing. And sometimes it ruins relationships. So next time you get that itch, remember the thousands and thousands of years of human history and how infinitely patient God has been with us. Be selective with your advice.
Unless you’re old and wise. Then go ahead. Really. A lot of us can really use it.
Chris once said, ÒIÕll never be a pastor.Ó Now heÕs in seminary and learning that God has a sense of humor. You can see more of his writing at christopherabel.com and his ramblings on Twitter.