My wife and I recently had dinner with two couples. It was a welcome night out and we were looking forward to it.
Over desert, one of the couples shared a difficult experience they were having with their adult son. They were completely estranged and had not spoken in several years. This situation was causing them understandable distress.
When they finished their story, the spouse of one of the other couples made this observation: You have to resolve this now or you will regret it for the rest of your lives. Call him up and capitulate. It’s not worth it.
The father of the estranged son immediately responded: What exactly qualifies you to give this advice?
Our dinner ended shortly thereafter on this tense note.
What can you glean from this experience?
A processing problem
Most of us believe our views are the “right” ones, even though others may disagree. Maybe that’s why we’re so willing to share them.
It’s almost impossible to persuade anyone that their opinion on any subject of consequence is wrong. It turns out there’s a science-based reason why this is true.
There’s evidence the brain filters out information that’s inconsistent with our beliefs. Our brain stem has a network of neurons which determines which information we consider. These neurons filter information and decide what should receive our attention. Contrary information often doesn’t make the cut and isn’t permitted access. The information that does get through tends to be consistent with our pre-existing beliefs, since that information is easier to process.
Even if the well-meaning person offering advice at our dinner was providing a valuable insight, it’s unlikely her views would have been processed by the aggrieved couple, much less evaluated.
An unintended insult
Assume a friend comes to you with this problem: His adult daughter has a drug issue. He is concerned leaving her a large inheritance could do her harm.
If you provide an immediate “fix” (like “set up a trust”), what message are you sending? It’s likely you’re trivializing the problem and making your friend feel inadequate for not coming up with this resolution.
That’s precisely how the couple felt upon receiving advice about how to resolve their problem. Diminished and trivialized.
That’s not a desirable outcome.
A better way
There’s a much better way to deal with these situations. It involves applying the basic principles set forth in my book, Ask: How to Relate to Anyone.
Replace judgment with empathy.
What if the response to the story about the alienated son was: That must be very difficult. How are you coping with it?
What if the response to your friend with the troubled daughter was: Tell me more about her situation. Is there any way I can help?
Note that both these responses are questions. Instead of providing advice (which is often unsolicited), they are intended to elicit more information.
When friends express problems and concerns, they aren’t necessarily looking to us to “fix” them. Instead, they may just want to be heard and understood. If they want more, they will ask.