Advice For Giving Advice: Life Kit When someone comes to you for advice, where do you start? This very meta episode of Life Kit explores how to give good advice to the people you care about. Hint: it's not always about fixing someone's problems.
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How To Give Advice: Less Fixing, More Listening

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How To Give Advice: Less Fixing, More Listening

How To Give Advice: Less Fixing, More Listening

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MEREDITH GOLDSTEIN, HOST:

This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Meredith Goldstein - longtime advice columnist for The Boston Globe and host of the "Love Letters" podcast, and I'm thrilled to be joining LIFE KIT today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOLDSTEIN: As a professional advice-giver, I help a lot of people with their problems in real life and online. But one question that's always hard to answer is, how do you give advice? Like, what makes a person good at giving advice to others? We all wind up being called on for advice by the people in our lives - our friends, family, our significant others - and it doesn't always go well. If you say the wrong thing to a friend, it might strain the relationship. Tell your girlfriend what to do and she might tell you where you can go.

So in today's very meta episode of LIFE KIT, I - an advice columnist - will explore how to give good advice to the people you care about. As one of my favorite advice columnists, John Paul Brammer - who writes Hola Papi - says, advice isn't one person telling another person what to do; it's a conversation, a partnership.

JOHN PAUL BRAMMER: There are no points to be won. You're both just human beings sort of collaborating on the project of being a person. And seeing it that way, for all its messiness, I think can leave a lot of room for growth.

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GOLDSTEIN: To get us some good tips for how to give advice, I went to several experts, including John Paul. But I want to start by going to the person I've always thought of as a natural advice-giver. She's been listening to me talk about my problems, on and off, for almost forever.

JAIME ROBERTS: Hi. I'm Jaime Roberts, and I am a high school guidance counselor outside of Boston. And I have known Mer (ph) since middle school.

GOLDSTEIN: When we were kids, Jaime was that girl you could talk to if you were upset - the one you could cry to in the bathroom, the one who never made you feel bad for having a feeling. She was an old soul, an unselfish listener.

ROBERTS: I think I was aware in high school and maybe early in middle school that people came to me with problems or people came to me and asked for advice. It could be adults. Like, my mom's friends would come to me, even teachers. I had babysat for one of our middle school teachers, and she would share things with me that, at the time I was like, I'm a little bit young to get this - and then friends.

GOLDSTEIN: It's no surprise that Jaime went on to advise teens for a living. Every day she meets with students, helping them figure out their relationships and what they'll do after graduation. I still go to Jaime when I'm stressed out, and I never feel judged. She's helped me after breakups. She's listened when I'm anxious. She gives me this low-key, not-too-scary tough love when she thinks I should be more brave about my dating life. She makes advice easy to hear. So I ask her, what's the key to being a good advice-giver? How does she do it?

ROBERTS: I want to make sure that I look open to the person, where my hands are visible.

GOLDSTEIN: Her openness isn't just about her attitude. Apparently, I also trust her because of her body language and her game face. And that's Takeaway One - body language matters.

When I think about you and how you compose yourself, there's always, like, a calmness and a thoughtfulness and a very even expression. So what are the ways that someone can sort of check themselves and their reactions when they're hearing somebody's problems?

ROBERTS: Just to be natural and - so I'm calming that person, more open to give advice 'cause if you look like you're tense or you're distracted, the person might not open up to you as much as you would want them to.

GOLDSTEIN: Jaime says people show openness in different ways. Eye contact is easy for some, but not for others. She actually gets cold a lot. So sometimes she just lets someone know, hey, my arms are crossed because I'm freezing in Boston, not because I'm judging you.

So what are some of the mistakes somebody might make when they're listening, with their body or their face?

ROBERTS: Yeah. Making a face, or like, oh, my God - you know, just kind of shock value - when they hear a situation that they haven't heard before. I think I try to take some deep breaths and sit back and be aware, be mindful of my body at times.

GOLDSTEIN: The next person I talked to about this also believes in the importance of the body as it connects to the advice-giving mind. Khalid Latif is an imam and the executive director and chaplain for the Islamic Center at New York University. Part of Khalid's job is counseling a lot of people. He says of body language, it's probably not good if you're holding a phone.

KHALID LATIF: I would say a few things to not do is to not be engaged in anything electronic, not looking at a phone. Somebody's calling you, just let it ring and stop. If someone's opening up and making themselves vulnerable, you want to let them know that they are your sole focal point.

GOLDSTEIN: One thing he tells me is that to have good body language, you have to practice self-care. You need to be well-rested. If you're exhausted and haven't eaten, your advice might be kind of bad.

LATIF: If I'm not taking care of my heart, I'm not going to really be able to be a good support or resource or help take care of other hearts, so to speak, and being mindful of my own state of physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, either strength or where I have exhaustion, and how I bring that in.

GOLDSTEIN: But Khalid's big tip about advice is to know what it is. It's not about coming up with some magic solution and commanding it. Even as a spiritual counselor, he knows that no one is coming to him for one final answer. Maybe they want a mirror, to be heard, to have a witness as they work it out. Don't feel pressure to give the one perfect answer. And that's Takeaway Two - people aren't necessarily asking you to fix it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOLDSTEIN: Typically, they're not looking to be told what to do. Like, how often do you go to someone and say, should I break up with my partner, and expect to hear a yes or a no? Advice, Khalid says, is more about listening, asking questions. You're doing a good job if you help a person answer a question for themselves.

LATIF: Be affirming and validating of emotions that they're sharing with you. You don't have to be solution-oriented all the time, right? Someone's not coming to you, necessarily, for you to fix a problem in the sense that they want steps, but a lot of it is to unload things that they have going on inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOLDSTEIN: Khalid says, part of this is not making it about you, which can be really hard. The worst advice I've given to friends had more to do with me than anything else. Like, maybe someone said, I want to get married. And in my early 20s I thought, well, what if they do, and I'm left all alone? What if I want something different for myself? Sometimes I wound up giving advice accordingly and selfishly. Part of this is stepping outside of the context of your own life. Your advice to someone else might not validate your own choices.

LATIF: Empathy, I would say, necessitates a complete suspension of the ego, where anything that's feeding or fueling it gets put to the side. And you're purely understanding the lived experiences of the one that is speaking to you through their experiences and not your own. And now when you're able to listen like that and to provide as objective of a space as possible, the person who's talking to you is going to recognize that you're listening to them by, really, how you're responding to them.

GOLDSTEIN: One thing Khalid and I both think about is our limits. I recommend therapy a lot in my column because when I read and hear some problems, I know they're above my pay grade. Khalid says there's nothing wrong with saying, hey, I want to help and listen, but I also want to get you what you need. And that's Takeaway Three - know when the questions are more than you can handle.

LATIF: An element of what I would do is provide pastoral counselling. Nothing of what I do is psychotherapeutic in any capacity, which I think is very important to understand. I think quite often there is a tendency for individuals who are not trained, who are not professional, to carry out as if they somehow held a degree in a field that they do not hold a degree in.

GOLDSTEIN: At Khalid's Islamic Center, he has two clinical psychologists on staff. Sometimes the best help you can give is making it OK to talk about therapy.

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GOLDSTEIN: So about therapy - I wondered what a therapist would tell us about how to give good advice because therapy and advice are not the same thing at all. Like, with a therapist, they're often only hearing from you. Depending on their method, they might be asking questions, listening, counselling, but it's all in the name of your point of view as one human or maybe a couple. But when you're giving advice to a friend, you're seeing the big picture. You might know everyone's perspectives in a conflict. You might be expected to give opinions because maybe you were there.

For more on this, I go to Sherry Amatenstein - a licensed social worker, therapist and author and editor of books such as "How Does That Make You Feel?: True Confessions From Both Sides Of The Therapy Couch". Sherry admits that her skills as a therapist don't always come out naturally when she's off the clock.

SHERRY AMATENSTEIN: Well, it's funny. In my personal life, I was always - and people will still accuse me of being this - a terrible interrupter and always giving advice and telling people what I thought they should be doing; I didn't even necessarily wait to be asked.

GOLDSTEIN: We'll call this a mini-takeaway - maybe it seems obvious, but don't interrupt. I think the hardest thing about giving advice as a loved one is that you often hear the same thing more than once - like maybe 5,000 times. And to my friends who might be listening, no, I'm not talking about you; I'm talking about all of us. I am just as guilty of calling a friend a zillion times with the same problem after making the same mistakes. I figure therapists have to deal with this repetition a lot. So how do they deal or point it out? Sherry gives us Takeaway Four - the best way to deal with a repetitive problem is to point out patterns.

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GOLDSTEIN: Apparently, we're allowed to point out the past when we see a friend struggling in the present.

AMATENSTEIN: And it is so hard to watch somebody doing something that you just know is part of their negative pattern. It's excruciating. And obviously, I'm more emotional if it's, you know - I'm coming at a friend or family member in a different way than I am from someone who's a patient. But I have a friend who has a pattern of always picking the path that's going to be the most traumatic and pothole-filled.

GOLDSTEIN: We've all been there, right? Especially when I was younger, I know I found myself steering toward plenty of potholes.

AMATENSTEIN: And if she asks me for advice - and sometimes even if she doesn't - if I see her heading for the pothole, I'm going to say something like, you know, this kind of reminds me a bit of that time when - so I'm just wondering why you want to do this? I'm happy to sound it out with you, but I am going to tell you, I'm kind of thinking this might be more trouble than it's worth.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOLDSTEIN: Another thing to think about with advice is timing. With my advice column, I can give advice on my schedule. People send me a letter, and it's totally fine for me to wait to answer it until I'm ready - at night, in pajamas, when my mind is clear. But in real life, it can be difficult to suddenly be on. That's a familiar problem to John Paul Brammer, whom you heard from at the start of the episode.

I love reading John Paul's column. It's called Hola Papi, and it focuses on the LGBTQ community. I've always had the sense that as Papi, John Paul is empathetic and lovely and ready to listen. When I go to him to ask how he gives advice and, more specifically, when he gives advice, he tells me he's learned the importance of boundaries. Sometimes a friend texts you with questions, and you're in a bad mood; you're allowed to say, let's do this later, when I can really be of use to you. And that's Takeaway Five - you don't have to give advice right now.

BRAMMER: I think that sometimes when you try to force yourself to be there for someone that you just can't be there for in the moment, you can do more harm than good. And so I think, having a relationship with yourself is a real skill, one that I've had to develop a lot over time because, you know, my background is that I grew up in rural Oklahoma. I was gay, Mexican. I got bullied a lot. And it sort of made me into a person that clinged to people really hard. And in the act of clinging to people, I found myself negotiating a lot of who I was away to accommodate other people. And that's not a happy place to be.

GOLDSTEIN: One of the reasons this advice on advice is so important is that we're living in a world that's so on-demand. Texts come in immediately, and there's FaceTime, and it might feel like we're being a bad friend if we don't answer someone right away. It's actually OK to say, I want to be totally present and ready to listen. I want to really hear you. So can we talk a little later?

BRAMMER: Vocalizing your needs, sort of letting someone know - even if they're a person you love and they're a person who says they need you right now - if you can't do that, then you can't do that. And you shouldn't force yourself because it just - it doesn't help any party. It's part of being a person, standing up for yourself or, you know, being confident in what you need in that moment. It doesn't make you less of a friend; it makes you responsible.

GOLDSTEIN: It's such a good point because I'd so much rather hear from my friend, like, I can't do this now, but in two hours you'll hear from me again. I mean, that...

BRAMMER: Right.

GOLDSTEIN: ...Feeling like we're all on-call for friends who might need us - like, I think it is so great to be able to say, I can't do this for you right now, but later.

BRAMMER: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, I think that relationships can become so healthy when those opportunities do come up for people to set boundaries because, I mean, they should be invested in you, too. It's not like - you don't enter a static relationship when someone's asking you for advice. They don't become the victim, and you don't become the person who's, like - knows everything.

GOLDSTEIN: John Paul also brings up a complicated point that I think is important. In our jobs as columnists, we're often asked questions by people who've lived very different lives. Like, I've never been married; I don't have kids. But lots of people ask me for advice about marriage and children. In Hola Papi, John Paul also answers questions that fall outside of his expertise. That's why he gives us Takeaway Six - you can be a great sounding board without having lived it.

BRAMMER: Because I deal - and my advice column deals so much with people from the LGBT community, but I am just a cis-gender gay man, I get a lot of letters from, you know, trans people, nonbinary people, people outside of my experience. And I can get really reluctant to give those people advice because I'm like, but that's not my life experience; that's not what I know. But there's something to be said about people having experiences that you can't access. Just because someone isn't exactly my identity, just because they're not a gay man, that doesn't mean I'm going to ignore them. Or if it's a friend who isn't exactly like me, doesn't mean I'm not going to try to help them the best way I can.

GOLDSTEIN: That doesn't mean you should guess about someone else's experience, by the way, or pretend you're an expert - asserting your opinion without knowledge. It just means you can still listen and support.

BRAMMER: You're just a human. You don't know what someone else is going through completely. You don't know what their experiences are, but that doesn't mean you don't have the ability to help. And I think what's more important than knowing the nuances and, you know, the really intricate details of what someone else's experience might be is a willingness to help and a willingness to listen.

GOLDSTEIN: So how do you do that? John Paul says, again, this is a listening thing. It's not about making assumptions. It's about taking the time to ask questions, maybe saying, say more about that; really processing what someone has told you and what they haven't. That tip also goes back to what John Paul said earlier, that advice is a collaboration. You have to remember you're only one piece of it. If you don't think you're doing a good job or you're confused about how you can help, you can ask.

BRAMMER: And I think, especially, that's useful in those moments of frustration where it seems like you're not going anywhere and the advice didn't land. And it's important there to sort of pause and say, hey, you know, what are you looking for? How can I help? What's going on on a deeper level? I think that everything - any dynamic between two people becomes a conversation, even if there aren't any words being spoken. Every dynamic has a give-and-take. Every dynamic has two human elements at play, and there's nothing wrong with asking for clarification when the communication gets muddled. I think that's one thing that people don't like doing very much. And yet, a lot of advice just comes down to that, especially relationship advice. Like, half my column is just, you need to communicate better. And I think if we can get better at that in our personal lives and with our friends, then our relationships will be a lot more fruitful.

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GOLDSTEIN: Thank you so much for your advice on advice. It was meta and wonderful.

BRAMMER: Meta and wonderful - that's all I strive to be in this life. Thank you so much for having me.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDSTEIN: So what have we learned? No. 1 - consider body language and how you're showing your openness to the person who's come to you. And here's a hint. Your body language can't be great if you're listening to someone while clutching your phone, so maybe put that away. No. 2 - people aren't looking for one solution. They aren't looking to be told what to do. Often, it's just about being heard. Three - know when it's above your pay grade. It's OK to steer someone to a professional. No. 4 - therapists point out patterns, and you can, too. You are allowed to help someone summon their own history for context. No. 5 - you don't have to give advice right now. You can pause until the right moment. No. 6 - you do not have to have lived it to be helpful. Just admit what you don't know, and go from there. That, I think, is very good advice.

For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. I'm about to listen to one called "How To Have A Good Weekend" because sometimes, I bring my stress from the week into my days off. Find more LIFE KIT episodes at npr.org/lifekit. And you can find my podcast "Love Letters", which is all about relationships, wherever you get your podcasts. And as always, here's a completely random tip. One thing John Paul Brammer and I realized is that as advice columnists, we can't write good advice when we have music on.

I've learned that I can't listen to music when I write responses 'cause, depending on the music, I might feel sad or happy or encouraged or I'm just too, you know, swayable.

BRAMMER: You know, I have these friends who listen to music while they write, and I'm like, I just can't imagine.

GOLDSTEIN: So if you're trying to write a constructive note to your friend, maybe turn everything off. Honestly, a weepy Billie Eilish song in the background might change your mood and your advice. If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at lifekit@npr.org. This episode was produced by Andee Tagle, Scott Helman, and Amy Padula (ph). Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan, and our project coordinator is Clare Schneider. I'm Meredith Goldstein. Thanks for listening.

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