Speak When You Know

One of the most important principles in Communicating with Compassion is not giving unsolicited advice. You always want to know that your advice is welcome. Another important principle is not to offer advice about things you don’t know. I’ve explained these here and here (add in the links).

The flip side of this is that if you are asked for input, and have valuable information, then give your advice. I feel strongly about this, because I saw what happens when people did not follow this principle. Here is one such incident.

As I was completing graduate school, I spoke with one of my teachers about my desire to do advanced study at a certain institute. My teacher listened, thanked me for sharing my plans with him and wished me well. Shortly thereafter I enrolled in that program.

It didn’t take long, though, before I began feeling socially isolated in this new environment. I contacted the teacher I had spoken with earlier and shared my distress. He told me that the school has a reputation for being a rather cold and unsociable place, and that he had a concern at the time that it might not be a good fit for me. When I asked him why he had shared this with me at the time, he said, “I saw you were enthusiastic about this and I didn’t want to rain on your parade.”

I still remember how shocked and upset I was as I heard his response. I had consulted with him precisely to get his opinion, and now it turned out that he had valuable information that might have helped me make a better choice–and he withheld it.

What leads people to make the mistake of withholding helpful advice? One reason is that they are afraid of coming across as negative. As the teacher said to me, ‘I didn’t want to rain on your parade’. It is much easier to be ‘agreeable’.

But I did not ask my teacher to be ‘agreeable’; I asked him for his advice, and I did not get it. There is neither integrity nor compassion in withholding valuable information that could help people make good decisions and avoid bad ones.

If we are not sure how our advice will be received, we can use the skills of Communicating with Compassion and say: “As I am listening to you, I have some concerns regarding this course of action. Do you want to hear them?” And if the person says “Yes”, then give your advice.

Of course, if we are concerned that giving advice could mean getting involved in a dispute between two parties, and we don’t want to do that, that is a legitimate reason not to offer input. What I want you to notice is how different this reason is from ‘I didn’t want to rain on your parade’. If possible, we would alert the person that we have a concern and suggest that they consult another person.

If you are asked for advice in an area where you have expertise, and you have a valuable insight, then unless there is a compelling reason not to speak, give your advice!