Giving advice and the risk of trying to help

Giving advice and the risk of trying to help

I always try NOT to give advice. However I do make recommendations and suggestions. I don't know how else to have a consultation with someone. I'll at least make indirect suggestions, even by the direction and promptings of the conversation, especially clinically, where there is often an agenda to help the situation and alleviate difficulty, or at least to learn from suffering in order to stop repeating problems.

It's quite ironic that as I wrote this article someone called me about insurance and remarked 'I am not giving you advice - I am not allowed to do that - but if it was me I would do x'. This represents the problem in a nutshell. People do everything the can, in lip service, to avoid the risk of saying or doing the 'wrong thing', but they often need to get around this anyway or nothing meaningful would ever get done! Imagine going to your doctor, lawyer or accountant and he or she said 'I really can't say what you should do - I can't give advice'. Wouldn't your next question be 'well what use are you?!' We can and should make suggestions, in my point of view, because again what is the use of a professional who doesn't? Imagine a fire fighter saying 'you can leave that burning house if you want to - but it's really up to you, I can't give advice'! How bloody absurd. Especially for those who really are seeking help and have absolutely no idea what to do. I think the best thing to do is to give as many appropriate and meaningful options as you can - along with  'weightings' around how much confidence we have in each of the options - but that the choice of option essentially remains with the person making that choice.

One of the problems with giving advice is that it could always backfire. Other times the advice is not 'bad' advice, it's just that the situation couldn't be helped: perhaps the situation it was applied to had been suffering a state of neglect for too long, or there was an inevitable outcome that simply could not be helped. Afterall, there is always a multitude of factors outside of one's control: for both the clinician and the client. This is the risk we take whenever we consult with others. Thus it comes down to the individual to take responsibility for his or her decisions and to use their discretion in whatever they do. To not do so is an abdication of responsibility and would always leave them in a powerless situation.

I usually clarify anything I say with the above, sometimes I have made an assumption that it was implied. Sometimes I have been wrong about this and am shocked when someone chooses not to exercise their discretion. I am fond of prefacing any feedback I give with: 'It might only be my perspective, but it seems to me that...' and also 'I know I am outside of the situation and don't really know what it's like to be in your shoes, so you need to use your discretion here...' - and my favourite: 'I am totally prepared to be wrong here, but have you ever considered x ?'

Sometimes this still does not work, and people only hear 'directions' and adopt the adage 'but you TOLD me to do so'. Honestly - let's get real here. Regardless of anyone's advice we still have to make our own choices and we are each responsible for our own choices. You have a choice and I have choice.

People often look for someone to blame. One of the first sources to target with blame are those who have made suggestions or given advice, as if we had been a puppet on a string without any choice in the matter and without taking any responsibility for our choices and life situation.

When I did something foolish as a boy, my mother always said 'so it's their fault because they told you to do it: would you jump off a cliff if they told you to as well?' or she'd say 'so what if everyone else is doing it: would you jump of a cliff if they did so as well?' The message is intrinsic to the rhetorical question: of course not. To think otherwise is infantile.

I once knew a retired psychologist who said that he did not like people! He had moved away to a remote corner of America because he completely disliked the way people conducted themselves. He was deeply disillusioned after spending way too much time with people who were disturbed and didn't take any responsibility. He disliked the way there was a retrograde focus in psychotherapy, the way that patients had often been encouraged to seek cause and responsibility in the past - that it's mum or dad's fault. I agree with him. Whilst we can attribute the influence of mitigating factors from the past, at the end of the day we are all making choices now and the buck has to stop with ourselves. Otherwise we are hopeless and the therapy is doing a disservice to the client. It patronizes them in an infantile way.

In contrast to that other shrink, the main reason that I can continue working clinically is because I believe I am doing some good - or that at least the helpfulness of my interventions outstrips the unhelpful. I can also maintain my own sanity because I don't take responsibility for my clients. They are people in their own right who are more powerful when they take responsibility for themselves - so I work with them in this way, to the best of my ability, in a therapeutic alliance - a collaboration of 'smarts'.

The litigious nature of our age is also mounting quite a backfire. Professionals will adopt the 'safest course' of treatment and intervention simply because they don't want to get stung. And sometimes professionals simply 'give up' and do something else that has minimal risk exposure with other people. For example - a lot of men have given up the school teaching profession and less men are becoming teachers. I spoke to a friend of my who is a school principal and she told me that 90% of teachers are women, and this is a huge problem for children as they don't get enough positive male role modelling. I asked her why she thought this was the case. She said it was because of the hype around paedophilia - that people almost assume these days that men who work with children might be paedophiles and that's why they do it. Can you believe this?! How tragically sad. Similarly with the clergy and spiritually inclined people in pastoral care - those who are priests, vicars, chaplains. Because of all the hype around SOME allegations and SOME convictions in the catholic church, people almost assume that most priests are 'dodgy' in this way. Again - how tragically sad. And people wonder why they can't get a priest for their local parish! Because people are thinking - 'why should I bother putting myself at such risk, where people assume such terrible things about me just because of a few cases in the past?' I totally accept their argument - in deed, why should they?

One of the reasons I am at least half decent at what I do is because I work from the heart and I do what I think is right, not just what is safest based on impression management, or indeed litigation risk management. Don't get me wrong - I always act professionally and responsibly, it's just that I intervene in ways that I think will help the most, even if it bucks the usual standard. I do what works and what I think is right from the depth of my heart - otherwise what's the point?Am I supposed to give up the good work that I can do, because I am taking a risk and it may not always work out perfectly?

Additionally if something 'doesn't work' and 'fails' and is 'wrong' and deemed 'bad' - how do we know this is truly the case, when all is said and done, in the long scheme of things, for sure? Things in life are impermanent. People are inconsistent and sometimes quite random. There is chaos theory. What seems 'bad' today may be the best outcome tomorrow. How do we truly know that something is good or bad? Isn't this black and white labeling quite extreme, quite simplistic?

Here's a nice story to illustrate the point:

A farmer has several sons. He has a sturdy horse to pull his plow. One day the horse escapes the fences and runs off. The other villagers say 'oh, how unlucky'. The farmer replies 'perhaps'. The next day he finds a whole group of horses wild in the wilderness and he rounds them up. The other villagers say 'oh, how lucky for you'. The farmer says 'perhaps'. The next day his son is training the horses and is thrown off which breaks his leg. The other villagers say 'oh, how unlucky for your'. The farmer replies 'perhaps'. The next day the king announces war with a neighbouring country and the military come round up all the young men to fight in the war. But the farmer's son is told to stay home because of his broken leg, and as a result he lives.

As you can see - this world is quite topsy turvy. Fortunes come and go like the rising and setting of the sun. Every empire has come and gone. Every 'flavour of the month' every 'trend' and 'fad' comes and goes. Relationships spark up and then sometimes fizzle out. I once met a man who was devastated when he and his wife broke up. A year later he met the love of his life, and they lived happily together for the rest of their days. What is good today can be bad tomorrow - what is bad today can be good tomorrow. What if we are 'pushing shit up hill' by doing something, and its ending was actually the best outcome all things considered?

This is why the Buddha taught non-attachment. He said that the root of suffering  lay in 3 aspects: attraction/ attachment (desire and longing), aversion (leading to dislike and hatred), and delusion (ignorance about the true state of affairs). The greatest problem is not that we lie to others, but that we lie to ourselves. We cling to people and objects to render a sense of self: that this relationships, or job, or family, or country or sporting team defines me. Yet all of these are impermanent. This is why in taoism the teachings talk about 'the way' and the 'flow'. All things come and go and change, so how can we be in the flow amongst these changes whilst not getting so disillusioned about such changes? I like the idea of responsibility for what we do, and also that everything is changing, so it matters more that what we did was based on ethical intentions and that we let go of the outcome otherwise. Afterall we can only do the best we can do.


3 Responses

  1. Very nice. Well done. robert
  2. Matthew Charlton
    Thank you Ben for writing an indepth article from the viewpoint of a psychologist, as often the clients bring with them lots of excess baggage and assumptions on what the psychologist should do, or what is right for them, so much so that they lose sight of the extrinsic advice offered by the psychologist, that the intrinsic responsibility the client has to follow up on the suggestions or advice of the psychologist is often lost. I can really relate to : What is good today can be bad tomorrow quote, as we need to be aware that clients might not always be comfortable with the advice or suggestions offered by the psychologist in the short term, as it might make them feel uncomfortable. However if this short feeling of uncomfort works out to be a prolonged feeling of comfort as the end product, then it is certainly worth it! I can vouch for this myself, as I am very grateful for your advice and suggestions you have offered to me over the last 6 years. It's psychologists like you who dare to be brave and bold that really makes a difference towards helping people become more aware of themselves and in doing so become more empowered. Thank you once again Ben.
  3. Nina
    Thankyou for putting aside your vulnerability and being Ben, such an immesurable gift to all of us who hold your advice in such high regard.

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