Saturday, January 31, 2009

Consoling Wisely

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." - old idiom (one of the oldest ones in English)
At times we will all see loved ones, both old and new-this-second, struggling in pain. Our compassionate hearts encourage us to open up and help. Sometimes we see the nail in the foot and are convinced that we can pull it out if only they would stop squirming.

"Here it is. Splish splash!" my friend Rei said pantomiming and smiling, "You won't drink it?" Nope, it doesn't work. She's right. So what do you do when you see a loved one struggling with something when the solution seems so obvious? Since I keep learning the answers to that question over and over again, it's time to write them down. This post is really a note to myself, but you may find it useful, too.

1. Open your heart and just listen. Don't encourage the venting, don't discourage it, just hear the person out. Validating the pain won't help, ignoring it is not the loving path. Be there with a compassionate ear and a hug.

2. "When you communicate your views, do so casually and in a nondogmatic manner. Allow the people you speak with to ask questions. Offer only as much information as they are ready to hear." From the Daily Om's Expanding Their Vision

3. Share a story. A related story may communicate that we're all in this together. Just make sure that your telling is to help your loved one, not to stroke your own ego. Practical warning: don't say, "I know what you're going through," even if you do (you don't)--it just seems to tick people off. "I've been there" and "I feel your pain" seem to work better.

4. Consider that your advice might not be wise, honestly. Ever think of that? Don't let doubt murder the helper within you, just be open to the possibility of not being the expert.

5. It's not about you. It's not personal. The other person might not be ready to benefit from your advice (see also #4). People will learn on their own. Don't judge yourself by the helpfulness of your advice, simply lovingly provide it as people are open for it.

6. Trust. Trust that the person will work things out. Amazingly positive seeds are already planted within each of us. That person will learn how to grow what they need from the seeds. Your trust in the other person's ability to tend to their own garden may be just the sunlight, nutrients, and water that they need.

7. If your garden needs tending, tend yours first. If you're traveling with a loved one, place the oxygen mask over your own head before assisting others. If you don't have the energy to help, don't help. Help out of love, not out of duty if you're only going to resent it. That's bad juju.

8. Give it time. Things work out; lessons are learned; people help themselves.

9. There are, of course, emergencies. If you see a person legitimately attempting to physically harm themselves, or if they say it, contact an emergency line immediately.

To all of those whom I do not follow this advice for: I am sorry. I am here for you, and I know that you have everything within you that you already need. Thank you for helping me to learn these lessons. (Also, I don't think of you as a horse.)

To everyone who has every helped me in any way through pain: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Request for comments - blog post hungry
Do you have any other tips that work for you on giving advice?
Do these ring true for you?


  1. On this subject, Motivational Interviewing may be of interest to you. The last few years it’s made big strides in addiction treatment. The main website is, and the MI grand opus is “Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. Motivational interviewing: Preparing people for change (2nd ed.) (2002). New York: Guilford Press.”
    The basic premise of MI is, when people are in conflict, when they are considering change, they usually go through a period of ambivalence. “I know I should leave him, but I love him too much.” “Sure, I’ve have a few DUI’s, and I’d like to get my wife off my back, but drinking is how I relax with my buddies – I couldn’t imagine my life without it.”

    When ambivalent, people naturally resist advice for change because that change only speaks to half of their position. There is a tendency to immediately defend the old pattern because there are ways in which it still looks attractive. MI seeks to acknowledge both sides of ambivalence, acknowledge the person, the whole person, where they’re at instead of immediately looking toward change. By working with ambivalence, MI lets the client, the recipient, dictate the speed and direction of change. It’s a very nonjudgmental, autonomy affirming process. It complements and augments your points: 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6.

  2. Thanks, Solomon. This is very interesting and something that I had not heard of before. This rings true:
    "When ambivalent, people naturally resist advice for change because that change only speaks to half of their position. There is a tendency to immediately defend the old pattern because there are ways in which it still looks attractive."

    Useful. Very useful.