30 March 2014

Unsolicited Advice

I suspect I've been thinking about my tongue because we're studying James in-depth in my Bible study right now, and we're working on chapter 3.

Chapter 3 is all about how powerful the human tongue is, able to ruin our lives and cause destruction in the world around us. The study guide directed us to read Proverbs 17:28 as well, which states, "Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; When he closes his lips, he is considered prudent." It reminded me of another quote by Abraham Lincoln: "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt." This sentiment flows nicely to a quote by a philosopher (Epictetus): "We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak."

In sum: Talk less, listen more.

Now, as people who know me in person can attest, I'm a pretty quiet girl. I don't say much in groups of people, and I'm not very chatty even one-on-one. For this reason, I've long considered myself to be "a good listener," but I recently engaged in a conversation that left me wondering how true that is.

I'll keep the details vague to protect identities, but I was recently being given a bunch of unsolicited advice about a topic near and dear to me. Because it's so important, I've done a lot of research on it, so I knew that the unsolicited advice was wrong. But as I tried to convince the advisors that I knew what I was doing, I realized I wasn't being heard. I think the talkers were assuming they knew what I was saying and therefore not really listening to the specifics of my position. It was wildly frustrating. But as I reflected on the conversation later that night, I realized that the advice being given could actually be damaging to a listener who didn't have the knowledge that I had. If I didn't done so much work already, what they said - even though they had the most loving of intentions - could have really made my experience more difficult and painful.

It made me wonder: how many times have I spouted off advice and caused damage to a person? How many times have I considered myself an expert on interpreting literature or reading body language or having a miscarriage or teaching a toddler to walk? Just spouted off advice to someone like I've studied this stuff for years, when the truth is I only have one experience?

The truth is that I'm not an expert in anything! They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to have mastered something. That means it'd take 5 years of doing something 40 hours/week every single week. If I practiced something two hours per day every single day (even on Christmas and my birthday), it'd take me 13.7 years to become a master in it. So I've been crocheting for 19 years. To get in all 10,000 hours, I need to have spent 10 hours/week crocheting - every. single. week since I was 8-years-old. So I've been crocheting for 19 years and I'm not even a master in that.

I have no professional opinions because I haven't had a lifetime to spend studying anything! Since that encounter, I've been mulling over the "talk less, listen more" principle.

For example, it really only applies to unsolicited advice. If I ask at a girls' night, "How and when did you convince your kid to give up a pacifier?" I'm obviously asking for a bunch of non-professional, personal-experience advice. But what about blogs? If I go off on here about feeding picky toddlers, is it really unsolicited? Theoretically, someone will hop online and do a search for "how to feed picky toddlers," hopefully finding my blog; they are asking for non-professional, personal-experience advice.

And what about sharing stories versus giving advice? Is it all about intention? Let's say we're all sitting around talking about how we get our kids to sleep. Someone shares an experience about how she used the cry-it-out method. Well I personally think the cry-it-out method is bad, so let's say I share my experience about how I got Abigail to sleep through the night without tears. It doesn't seem on its surface to be unsolicited advice, but if I only shared my experience in hopes of swaying the other mom, does that change the actuality of the story/advice?

What about the "well I know someone" comments? One on hand, anecdotal evidence is notoriously unreliable. But on the other hand, knowing that someone else out there in this big world - even just the cousin of a friend of a friend - can really help us feel less alone. But then again, talk about the risks of it turning into the telephone game...so many details get lost, even when we think we know the whole story, just because we weren't there. So while some instances of, "this one girl I know tried that restaurant and loved it" can soothe us, other instances of, "I know someone who circumcised her son and it went horribly wrong," are at the very least worthless and potentially even damaging.

And lastly, how much responsibility is on the listener, even if the advice is unsolicited? We as listeners should remember that no matter who is speaking, unless they have been doing it for 10,000 hours, they are probably just telling you what worked for them. Maybe it will work for you to use red delicious apples for your applesauce. Maybe not. But no matter how objective I make my opinion sound, red delicious apples are not inherently the best apples for applesauce.

Should we strive not to give unsolicited advice? Or is it enough to couch things with, "Well, I personally found helpful..." or even "Rumor has it [that restaurant is terrible]?" Then again, if I'm at the coffee shop and overhear some woman talking to her friend about her great pedicure and her friend replies with, "Well I personally like the salon over on 5th," doesn't it rather beg the question, "Who the *#&$ cares what your favorite salon is? She's telling you about her great experience, not asking for recommendations."

It seems to me to be a really damn complicated topic. After all, using our personal experiences to shape our world view is how we as humans navigate life. We couldn't possibly expect to get through each day if we sough the advice of professionals and did extensive research on each decision we need to make. And talking about our lives is how we as humans make friends. We couldn't possibly expect to build a strong social network around us if we kept all of our experiences to ourselves for fear of not being expert enough to talk.

But at the same time, we need to talk less and listen more because, as God says, our tongues are "a restless evil and full of deadly poison."

Ugh, this is still a topic I'm mulling over in my head. If you have similar mullings, feel free to share them - in an experience-sharing kind of way, of course ; )

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

CRAZY! I went to ladies night last night with 5 other ladies, three of whom are not big talkers. I didn't like the awkward silences, but also don't want to manipulate the conversation. Hence, I tried to start conversations by asking questions and bringing up other moms we knew and whether they've had their babies yet, etc.

I held my tongue when they all talked about pediatrician visits and vaccinations (neither of which we choose to 'do'), but the conversations jumped around so much that I ended up having to explain to this lovely group of women WHY we don't see a regular pediatrician, do vaccinations AND will not be jumping on the state-funded, charter-school bandwagon when we homeschool our kids -ALL topics I tried my best to avoid!

In the end, I remained calm and explained everything from the position of "this is what my husband and I have discerned is best for our family," and "these are the drawbacks we see that have influenced our decisions," but I knew darn well that I was a whopping whale out of water and couldn't help feeling that I WAS preaching to them, simply because our family decisions on these issues are so radically different from theirs.

When I related the evenings events to my husband he remarked, "Wow. You DO sound like the crazy, right-wing, ultra-conservative of the bunch!"

I laughed, but I still feel like I could wait a good long time before I embark on another ladies' night.

Maybe I just need to meet more right-wing, home birthing, granola mamas. Or move to MO.

I guess what I'm trying to say, in the end, is that I really TRIED to talk less, listen more, last night, but I got backed into multiple corners and things went crazy.

The evening actually ended for me when I finished talking about the inherent evils of Common Core and how it's going to affect all the state-run, homeschool charter money handouts. But even that wasn't my fault -my husband sent a text that he was outside with all three kids at 9:30pm, so I had to go.

I'm sure everyone there breathed a sigh of relief when I left.

It's hard, because you can work so hard to express a certain thing a certain way, but you can still be totally misunderstood.

Good post. Lots to think about. TB