I've learned a lot of different things from my mother. I learned how to cook. I learned how to sew, to quilt, to garden, and this year how to can tomato sauce. I learned how to be a good friend and a good mother. Lately I'm realizing that I also learned how to give good advice.
Good advice is a tricky thing really because at the heart of it - the best advice to give comes by actually giving none at all even while it appears that you've given some. The difference is subtle really but simple. There are two kinds of advice people give: opinions and path indicators.
1. Most folks end up giving opinions and labeling it advice. "Well if I were you, here's what I would do." or sometimes digused as "The way I see it [insert opinion hear.] It may come in the "clearly there is no choice" type package or finally the blantant let me live your life for you variety of "You must do xyz."
2. Good advice, however, is a path indicator. Good advice does not say "Do this or do that." It reflects and reframes. It says "what I hear you saying is. . ." and "you are the only one that can make this choice. Just remember to consider these angles/answer these questions." Above all else it says "Know that I am here for you to support you in whichever path you decide to travel. Know that there is no right or wrong in terms of our friendship. We're kosher no matter what."
Don't be fooled, though, by opinions disguised as good advice. I'm not even sure the givers of this realize they do it. Its very subtle. They appear to help light a path by lighting markers in the form of thought provoking questions. . . and then they answer them for you. This doesn't let you do the work to discover your own truth. It just gives you their truth. It doesn't convey the message that "we're ok no matter what path you pick." It says "Hey, this is where I think you need to go" then leaves nagging doubts in your head as to what happens if I head off the other way.
There is a friend of mine in my local mom's group beginning the process of divorce. She's recently shared the news with our group and on occasion has lamented about a sense of total confusion as to where her path in life really lays. Several well meaners have offered her their version of a roadmap. They do have the best intentions but really, their advice is only *their* right path and it may or may not be the right one for her. Some told her their nightmares and horror stories of divorce. Others have told her their survival stories as children of divorce. To me, though, all she needed to know is that she will still be loved and adored no matter what path she ends up on. She needed to be reminded that things may be rough, but in the end ok. She also needed to know that it was ok to make a choice for her, no matter what that was, without feeling there was any right or wrong beyond *her* right and wrong choosen on the facts that only she and her spouse really know all of. She needed to be hugged not directed.
Another member of that group is going through a story that I'm sure Jerry Springer is drooling over. She came to the group with a new wrinkle and was looking for someone to make that choice for her. Its a dangerous thing really. What if you choose wrong - you risk ruining a friendship. You gamble when you advise through opinion because there are only two results available to you: hero or scapegoat.
Its one thing if someone approaches you as a pseudo expert based on your experience. Sort of a "Hey, look, you just had a run in with the airlines, what did you do to get your money back?" or "You're a mom, how do you get your kid to sleep at night?" Even then, you're best off couching replies with "Well, here's what worked for me. . ." TO me its another dangerous tightrope to respond to the "If we do A then we risk B. If we do C we risk D. What should I do?"
The last thing Mom taught me about advice is to never give it unsolicited. Never just start spewing forth street lights or opinions if you don't want to gamble a friendship. This is very hard really. I find myself sitting often listening to someone in pain and just wanting to fix it for them. I hear someone struggle with a choice they must make and I want to help hold their hands and find their way. Yet the truth is this doesn't do anyone any good. It doesn't serve the person and if anything it risk ruining your relationship. You risk offending and creating a wedge you never meant to craft.
In terms of the friend pursuing a divorce, this has meant resisting the urge to say "You picked this path for a reason, stick to your guns if the protests he offers have been wasted breath before." Its meant saying (and meaning) in its place "I'm sorry you're going through this. I'm here if you need anything. . .even just time out of the house, why don't you come over with the kids." Its meant not telling her war stories of other people. Its not meant not saying "Well when my brother-in-law though he could do this without a laywer he ended up getting screwed." Instead I said "Oh, honey, ignore that lady. You do what you think is right for yourself and your family - whatever that is because only you know."
Its hard sometimes, but its right. Its always right. The funny thing is when you are pathlighting advice giver people tend to reach out to you and ask you for your "2 cents." And you smile to yourself knowing that you've not got a penny to spare really, instead you'll just offer some reflection and reframing. You won't direct, you'll thought provoke. You won't answer questions you'll just ask. You won't advise really - you'll just light both paths.