Giving Advice . . . or not

In a recent blog post, Parker Palmer wrote about the perils of giving advice to others. Often the advice is not wanted and not needed. He told the story of a man who’d recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The man had emailed his news to a few family members and friends. One came over right away and asked how he was feeling. His response was, “I’m feeling amazingly at peace with all this. I’m not worried about what lies ahead.”

The friend replied, “Look, you ned 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.”

The man reported that the visit from his friend had left him less at peace.

Back in my seminary days I completed a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education followed by a year serving as a pastoral counselor in a health clinic. Those experiences taught me to be very slow in offering advice. My counseling consisted most of listening and often involved simply inviting people to tell me more about what was going on in their lives and how they felt.

There are some, however, who come to a pastor seeking advice, who want the pastor to share the responsibility for the decisions that need to be made and the actions that must be taken. I remember a time, many years ago, when a parishioner came to my office and shared how she was struggling with decisions regarding the care of her mother. The mother needed nearly constant care and it was becoming clear that the care she needed might not be able to be provided in the woman’s home. The family was struggling with the options of expensive home care, expensive nursing home care, temporary respite care and the like. She asked me what they should do.

I began by simply sharing that I wasn’t an expert in elder care and that I had little experience with such decisions. This was before I had assumed responsibility for my mother’s care or witnessed my wife’s care of her father. I then complimented the woman on her care and the seriousness with which she was considering the difficult choices. I offered a prayer, but no advice.

At the time I thought that I had handled the situation well, but I soon heard from a family member that the woman was very disappointed with the exchange. She had come to me wanting advice on how to proceed and had left my office without any sense of direction. Fortunately for me, the woman continued to be faithful in her commitment to the church and continued to be thoughtful and careful about the care decisions for her mother. A short time later, when the mother died, we were able to plan a meaningful funeral that provided much needed support to the woman and she became very much at peace with the decisions she had made.

Despite that experience, I still operate on the assumption that most people, deep down, don’t want advice. They don’t need to be fixed or saved. What they need is to be witnessed: to be seen and heard. Their situation is complex and their circumstances are unique. They want another person to acknowledge those things. They want a companion as they pursue their journey. My role is less to be the helper and more to be the one who recognizes the soul-deep needs that lie below the surface.

I am called to witness and to be a companion.

All of this doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who are in need of salvation. It is just that I’m not the one who is the source of that salvation. Efforts to “save” another person often involve applying a solution that has worked for someone else in different circumstances and makes the one being “saved” feel is if she or he hasn’t even been heard.

Some of the deepest ministry in my experience has come in moments when there are no solutions. I’ve joined families at the bedside of a loved one who is nearing death. I’ve gone to the homes of parents who have experienced the death of a child. I’ve been with people who have recently received devastating diagnoses. I spend a remarkable amount of my time in situations and with people for whom there is no “fixing” the brokenness of this world.

In his blog on the topic, Palmer quotes Mary Oliver, a favorite poet of his and mine:

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

What I have to offer others is my attentiveness.

There are others who feel confident acting as spiritual advisors, who offer suggestions on specific practices or beliefs that help others. I do not fault them for their good work. I simply know that giving advice isn’t among my gifts. I often feel that I don’t have a solution, or even the ability to clearly see the next steps. I can fetch a glass of water, respond with a hug, and share silence with those who are in need. I do not know how to tell them what to do.

The skill that I hope to develop is that of asking the right questions. There are questions that give the other the chance to express more of his or her own truth. There are questions that reveal paths that were previously unseen. There are questions that remind the other of the strength and wisdom that lies within. I have occasionally stumbled onto those questions in the course of conversation. There are no “one size fits all” questions, however. Each is the product of careful listening and attuning myself to the deepest needs of the other.

I have, however, compiled a short list of competent counselors and professional consultants just in case I encounter a situation where someone really wants advice and I have none to offer. Perhaps referring the person seeking advice to another is the most helpful thing I can do.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!