To err is human, to advise is skilled
Updated: Jul 25
When it comes to advice, one size doesn’t fit all
Monica: You and I, we went to different high schools
Rachel: Now see, you’re confusing me because we went to the same high school.
Monica: No, you went to one where you were pretty and popular, I went to one where I was fat and lonely.
Every individual is a venn diagram of three key influences:
Their upbringing (including beliefs, experiences, learning – their psychology); their personal make up (eg. Are they quick to anger, are they passive etc – biology); and their current social demands and expectations. This “bio-psycho-social” combination is different for all of us – even twins. Therefore one of the biggest relationship killers is to assume the other person thinks and acts like us. (The next is to assume our way is better!)
The power of the ego
Whether the teaching of Freud holds much weight with you, I am using his terminology, so I will also use his explanation. Taking a psychodynamic approach to understanding human behaviour, humans are instinctively driven to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This gives rise to engaging in unhealthy behaviours if they appeal to our sense of hedonism, and seeking to suppress anything that makes us feel upset or ashamed – this includes reflecting on poor past choices.
Further, this can also mean that we have a subconscious presumption that “Our way works best”. This will be because it has worked for us in the past (our social experience has led to a psychological belief that this is a positive cause of action), but also if someone does something different, we may see their success as a threat to our choices and even try to discredit their approach or force ours on them rather than accepting that “we’re all different” and moving on (or even taking note of what they did in case it works for us at a different point in time.)
Unfortunately, when we offer advice, especially when it has been solicited and it is not taken, we can also feel rebuffed – which again can affect our ego and in turn this can result in us feeling a sense of anger towards the other person.
Why professional advice differs from “asking a friend”
The beauty of psychology is threefold. It enables one to explain why something may be happening; to predict future behaviour; and to respond or take action for the outcome you desire. Many people enjoy the first two greatly – understanding someone’s actions and the sense of “I knew it” when a prediction plays out gives us a sense of control in a world ever growing in its uncertainty.
Generally, it's also what we enjoy in friendships - discussing the whys and wherefores that something happened.
Fewer people enjoy the taking action. Why? Because this means we have to assume an element of responsibility. In some – not all – cases, it may simply be, if we had made different choices a different outcome may have ensued. However, even though where there is responsibility there is power…ie. the very nature of having been able to affect an outcome means we get to choose. However, this can often feel overwhelming. Knowing that we can do something to bring about a result gives way to our sense of “what if I make the wrong choice?”. Alternatively, the sense of shame of the situation you had faced may be too great that it is less painful to us to simply chalk it up to “Once bitten twice shy”. What we need to appreciate is that the answer to the question “But why did I put my hand out in the first place?” can give us a multitude of ways to avoid the same occurrence in the future.
As I said earlier, it is this which can put a strain on relationships as it can be quite painful seeing someone you care about going round and round on an emotional hamster wheel and not necessarily know how to help them off it.
Stopping the "ride" - and often helping you switch it up, is my job. I have to understand broader patterns to be able to give you an accurate breakdown of what I believe may be happening, which in turn shapes my choice of strategies to give you. I have to assess the sort of person (bio-psycho-social) you are – and why you might be responding in a certain way, as well as what the other parties to the situation may be thinking or feeling which causes them to act in the way that they do. I then distil it so that you have tailored and workable techniques for you.
Even my reaction to a friend asking for help as opposed to a client is different! My professionally training means I generally don’t tell you what to do – because the sense of ownership over an action means you’re more likely to do it anyway. But, as a friend, my role is to support you. If you end up making a choice which goes wrong, I don’t want you thinking your ego will sustain another hit with “I told you so” on top of dealing with the fallout you’re faced with.
As a professional my role is to help you understand and accept your bio-psycho-social influences, and work within those to make the best choices for you. As a friend, I cannot save you from yourself.
But that’s why coaches and consultants charge.
Our offering goes beyond that of a friend. Much of what I do is about motivating you to make the changes you want. I look at the issue, use my academic knowledge to explain what may be going on, and contextualise it by framing what could happen if changes are not made. I then suggest solutions – actions that can be taken…not only within the situation, but within the self. My focus is more about building you up so that when you interpret and predict behaviour around you in your specific instances, you feel powerful enough to take steps to effect the outcome you want…and you know even if it doesn’t work, you’ll still be ok.
As professionals, we have spent years learning our subject, exploring the different nuances, and reflecting on the numerous outcomes that can ensue. Part of our work is exploring your individual situation in full and offering you support not just for the immediate issue, but long term – ideally so that you do not need us again. We also have multiple techniques, tools and practices you can try – some we have taken extra qualifications in (in my case I am also a psychometric profiler) – others we learn through our own professional development or may even have innovated through out experience.
This means, if something we suggest doesn’t bring the results you want, we have other artillery we can offer. We are also exclusively in your corner (professional ethics means we have “conflicts of interest” to address should they be flagged) – you don’t need to worry whether we have any hidden agenda. The best of us are also are skilled in different ways to communicate said knowledge so that if saying it one way doesn't resonate, we'll find a way that will.
One of my favourite social media memes is the one that reads:
"Something that takes me 5 minutes is the same thing which has taken me years to learn. You pay me for the years not the minutes."
And finally, as long as you put in your side of the effort, we don’t really mind if you like us or not - you can be cursing our name as you do the work we've set...just as long as you do it.
So ask yourself what you want when it comes to advice
If you want to vent then phone a friend, but if you want to find a way not only to address your current issues, but to grow and develop yourself so that future ones can also be taken in your stride - call a coach. A friend is best placed to help you manage a vicious cycle through a loyal shoulder to lean on - but don't overstep their boundaries either, remember, their time is gratis. A coach can furnish you with the tools - unique to your bio-psycho-social needs in order to break said cycle or change it to a virtuous one...and maybe payment is as much a motivator as an appreciation of the skill.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt