Photo credit cornflakegirl_/Flickr
Confession: I’m an avid reader of advice columns. Lately I’ve noticed letter writers asking for advice about stopping unwanted advice. The letters go something like this:
Dear Advice Columnist,
I’m getting ready for a big change in my life, and my friends and family keep adding their own two cents about what I should do. But who asked ’em?! Tell me how to make them stop!
Don’t Tell Me What to Do
That’s the funny thing about advice: we only seem to want it when we ask for it. But even when we do ask, it’s often a way of seeking empathy or confirmation of the things we already know. After all, we are each the expert of our own lives.
In my professional life I’m upfront with new clients about my policy on giving advice: I won’t do it! It doesn’t work, and it’s actually not very kind. When I was a new dietitian, I thought that people would automatically change their eating habits if they only knew what to do. So I made it my business to give them all sorts of advice and opinions in the name of “education.” I was like an overly eager kid in the classroom, waving her hand around and blurting out, “Ooh ooh! Call on me! I know the answer!” Looking back, it’s not surprising that I often failed to help people make meaningful or sustainable changes. I made myself the presumed expert of their lives and implied that they were somehow deficient when in fact they were whole and resourceful.
Give advice sparingly. It is seldom wanted and little used. Besides, you might run out just when you need it most yourself.
Reuben Long (1898-1974)
Now that I have this policy on not giving advice, I find that clients still want me to tell them what to do. When I remind clients that they’re intelligent and creative and capable, they deny it. “Nope. If that were true, I wouldn’t be talking to a nutritionist, now would I? If you won’t tell me exactly what to eat at all times and in every situation, then what good are you?” That’s a fair question. I would say that I’m good at helping people develop trust and confidence in themselves so they can uncover their own answers. Which is not to say that I don’t have information to share. If you need to learn something about food, nutrition, or eating before you can decide how to make a change for the good, I’ll ask your permission to teach. Or if you want to hear what other people in similar situations have done, I’ll tell you their stories. After all, I do want you to be safe and successful! But when it comes time for you to eat (or not), the choices are yours alone. How freeing and empowering is that?
Old habits die hard, and every once in a while I do find myself jumping right in and telling a client what to do. Fortunately, no one takes my advice. And I’m left to learn my lesson – again, and gratefully.