Monday, January 18, 2010


Last week, blogger Lori Hope posed the question on her website (, “When is it okay to offer unsolicited advice?”

When we’re ill, others offer suggestions for practitioners, second opinions, clinics, diets, books, and so on. We can’t follow all the tips we’re given, and besides, some tips contradict others.

It’s worth perusing the responses to Lori’s post. One reader said unsolicited advice can be appropriate when the person's behavior impacts someone else. Another wrote that in her case it’s a moot point, since her family ignores her advice anyway. A nurse wrote, “I try to just listen and give as many options out there if they ask. Sometimes there is no answer. Patients need to make their own decisions but I am big on making sure they have informed ones.” Another reader said she’d rather hurt someone's feelings [by offering unsolicited advice] than take a chance on them not having truly valuable information; as she poignantly put it, “I would rather risk losing a friendship than losing a friend.”

I find myself asking why we offer advice in the first place.

Well, duh, we want to help. But why do we want to help? To end suffering, of course. That includes our own suffering, for when our friend feels better, so will we.

Sometimes we really can end suffering. My friend complains to me his foot hurts; I notice it’s lolling in the campfire, in flames; I encourage him to pull it out; he does, the pain stops, he’s grateful, and I feel better.

But that situation’s the exception rather than the rule. Chronic and life-threatening disease isn’t as simple as a foot in the fire. First, the foot will remain in the fire; that is, the disease will likely not get cured. And second, most of sickness’ suffering results not from the disease, but from the person’s emotional response to it.

When well-meant suggestions aren’t taken, that’s why. They simply don’t touch the source of suffering. Touching the source requires deeper probing, a more extensive conversation, and sometimes, I’m sorry to say, the summary offer of advice serves to end the conversation rather than deepen it.

Before I offer advice, then, I ask myself what my motive is. Will my suggestion be taken and effectively applied, or am I making the offer because it gets me off the hook, absolves me from going more deeply into my friend’s suffering? This is a hard question for all of us. As a human being, I sometimes err on the side of my own comfort—but at least I’m working on it.

Please note that I’ll be fallow the rest of this week, so don’t expect new material here until January 25 or so. Meanwhile, I encourage you to enrich the conversation by adding your comments to these postings.

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