The thing about advice

behaviour mirror work Jan 14, 2024

How do you write an article about unsolicited advice without it being unsolicited advice? Got to love the irony.

At a recent training there was this listening exercise we had to do in dyads. Taking turns, one person had to ask another a question. If you’ve ever been in these containers you know the questions aren’t a breeze. They typically cut through the askees heart and drop you into a space of vulnerability you didn’t see coming. They’re not small talk questions that's for sure. They’re reflective, confronting, and hella deep. If you know me, you know I live for these questions. Self inquiry, getting vulnerable, meaningful conversations are basically hobbies if one can call them that. Once the question was asked, the asker had to sit in deep listening. Wasn’t allowed to respond, share thoughts, acknowledge struggle, or point to a different perspective. Just listen.

Now that, I didn’t see coming. A discomfort easily tolerable within the space of a 20 minute exercise. It was only till I started to investigate the act of pure and present listening in everyday life that I started to notice how unbearably difficult it truly is. That our capacity to listen or not is so telling of the window of tolerance we have in sitting with our own sensations. If that window is small, then unsolicited advice comes in to rescue us from the discomfort of someone else’s experience.

The road to (little) hell is paved with good advice

Hell is perhaps a tad too dramatic a word to use, but so goes the saying. Taken with a pinch of salt, the point is that what we often do as an act of goodwill is not always in service of ourselves or the person we’re trying to help. In the face of someone speaking to us about their problems, or someone we care about living a life we think can be optimized, jumping in to save them with solutions on what they should or should not do is simply robbing them of their own journey.

The need to expedite the path to solution nirvana, while seemingly altruistic, is really reinforcing the lack of trust the person in front of us has in their own capacity to overcome. Now granted, in real life situations you’re not going to sit with a blank face when someone is opening their heart to you. Although, there’s so much power in simply being seen and heard. The resourcefulness you can bring in simply holding space, asking questions, can be far more useful than our own version of ‘the right thing to do’.

I was and still am very guilty of this. When you see people you love so deeply engaging in a way of a life that feels detrimental, like relishing in their story, taking one too many meds, or living an ungrateful life, I have to constantly check in with myself on what sits behind the visceral need to jump in. How much of this need is really about me wanting to be a savior? How much of this need is because somatically it feels really uncomfortable for me to see them this way? How much of this need is me thinking I know better, or not trusting they will get to the answer themselves?

Empowerment is self-cultivated, not passed on.

There’s a saying my somatic teachers always say ‘knowledge is just a rumor until it’s in the muscle’. In other words, mindset, intellect, and awareness alone doesn’t incur lasting change until the body is first felt, understood, and engaged in the process.

Over and over again. This is to say that the greatest gift you can part on someone is holding space for them to feel and process. It’s perhaps the most guaranteed way of supporting them in cultivating a sense of empowerment in their own capacity to thrive.

Enculturated to avoid pain at all costs (thanks pharma), there’s a dismissal of the value that sits with discomfort. Quickly numbing it away. The information it can hold in guiding us to the answers we deeply seek. Instead of invalidating the experience with things like ‘look at the bright side’ or ‘at least xyz didn’t happen’ or worse ‘i can’t believe they did that to you’ ultimately reinforcing their victimhood, a better approach is when we can listen, check in, and normalize their experience.

Witnessing someone in their process is a privilege and reminding myself of that has taught me to learn the often hard work of not interfering. Not robbing someone of their journey irrespective of its length. Perhaps a parallel akin to the process of nature when not interfered with. The magic that can come out of that. As I come into the body of a coach, a lot of the work is not learning the theory of somatic coaching as much as untangling all the ways I can better listen in witness to others.

Unsolicited advice to ourselves.

You probably saw this coming, but lastly there’s a whole lot of unsolicited advice we pass on to ourselves. The different parts of us that peak through sharing their feelings of unworthiness, jealousy, anger, fear, you name it, and the way we respond to those parts can be highly invalidating. Or worse, dismissive.

Similar to our external interactions, those internal ones are to be met with the same permission to be as is. It’s not about talking ourselves out of the upset with positive affirmations, bypassing with it our experience. It’s making space to listen to any of these voices. The nature of the approach unblends us from the part. We don’t become the part, voice, or thought, we simply sit with it. The level to which we extend permission to our internal world to simply be is inextricably linked to how we meet others externally with that same level of acceptance.

If you’ve made it here this far,

I’m not sure we ever refrain from injecting our own experience into that of another, but it comes down to noticing our tendencies and intention in the process. In self-correcting along the way. As friends, partners, family, we can often see things from a wider perspective than the person who’s in the deep end, but it boils down to seeking consent prior to imposing our own view. Checking if they are open to it. Avoiding the implicit ‘I know you better than you know yourself’ when offering our assessment of their life-scape.

We’ve all heard ourselves giving advice we wish we can follow ourselves, and I’ve started to find this thought quite endearing actually. It’s a testament to our shared humanness. What follows this realization is the knowing that no matter what anyone else says, until you feel the impulse from within, whatever anyone tells us is easier said than done. It takes the time it takes, and that journey is the whole point. Spaciousness, presence, and compassionate witnessing of another is the most precious thing we can extend.

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