Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sometimes the best advice is no advice

Have you ever noticed how sometimes the best advice you can give someone is no advice at all? We live in a society where we are constantly searching for answers. It seems like everyone has at least one consultant they can call upon. You have someone to help you with your finances; another to give you “life coaching” (whatever that is); and if you’re rich then you might have a personal trainer as well. In every aspect of our lives, we are searching for those who can give us good advice.

I think this is true in my life to a degree as well. Especially in hindsight, I can see the many people I sought advice from over the years. Some of it was great advice. I had people who genuinely cared about me. They wanted what was best for me. Regardless of their motives, though, the best advice doesn’t always come in the form of stating your opinion. In fact, I think it rarely does. The best advice I’ve ever received was when someone intentionally chose not to give me advice at all. Their silence spoke louder than words or proactive plans that I could follow. They helped me because of what they didn’t say. Their ultimate refusal to tell me what I “should do” was not a hindrance to my growth as a person; rather, it was an opportunity to become the person I had to become on my own initiative. No advice was good advice. Further, not giving me advice was really a sign of someone’s wisdom.

When I think of wisdom, I can’t help but think about the book of Proverbs in the Bible. It is a book full of wise sayings that were passed down from different generations. This book of sayings and adages, though, were not secret formulas that automatically gave you wisdom. Rather, they were ideas that could help someone live a good and fulfilling life. Proverbs devotes many of its chapters to the achievement of wisdom and the importance of seeking wise counsel.

Wise counsel.

When we ask someone for advice, what we are really asking for is their counsel, right? But wise counsel doesn’t necessarily mean giving people answers or telling them what they should do. That is not counsel. That is not empowering someone. That is simply the stating of your opinion. Which depending on who you are, could mean very little. It’s like the person who is always sharing advice on relationships and they’ve never been in one. They might have read some Joshua Harris book in the past, but that in no way gives them credibility to speak on the subject. They are a purposeless voice, who may have great intentions, but is nevertheless, an incessant and annoying reminder as to why some people should keep their opinions to themselves. No one wants to be “that guy” or “that girl.” Do we seek to give wise counsel or to just be heard?

Counsel is really about helping someone find their way. It is assisting them on their journey and allowing them the power to choose and figure things out on their own. When we constantly “counsel” people by the sharing of our opinion or telling them what we would do in a given situation, we take away the power of their choice. Our influence can become too big in someone’s life. Instead of figuring out how things should really be, they just do what we say. That is not helping someone become a mature and complete person. That is hindering them. Parents do this. Pastors do this. Friends do this.

Viktor Frankl, the famous concentration camp survivor and author, said that the last of any human freedom is the ability to choose—to choose one’s attitude, thoughts and to make decisions. Do we allow people to truly choose if our counsel is always giving them answers? Sometimes our silence says as much as the words we say. Furthermore, our ability to not tell people what to do has a tremendous impact, even if it is not immediate. It is a sign of maturity when our counsel gives people freedom to figure things out on their own.

Mark Twain once said that if he had to live life over again, he would have said less. Perhaps there should be times when we practice the art of restraint. Not because we don’t have meaningful ideas or good things to say, but because our silence can mean someone else finds the solution they were looking for. Moreover, I rarely hear someone praised for his or her “advice-giving-opinion-stating” abilities. People are praised for their ability to listen. A good leader, and a good friend for that matter, will artfully and tactfully choose when to give advice and when to say nothing. They will allow their silence to be as important as their words.


  1. my friends and i are going through job and were struck by the wisdom of something his friends did. after all the crap happened, they sat by his side in proper semetic custom of silence for seven days, saying nothing. we were thinking about how sometimes, that's what's needed. you don't want to talk about it, but you don't want to be alone either. you just need someone there.

    course, then they opened their mouths after the silence and ruined it all but hey, what can you do.

    reminds me of a short story i'll have to tell you about later.

    love ya buddy.

  2. Person who's got no dating experience, but read a Joshua Harris book a long time ago?? Totally me! hahahaha... but I've converted since then!

    I know silence is golden, but sometimes I can't help myself from opening my mouth. My preferred method of dispensing advice is countering with a question. Not just some random question, but one that will encourage further thought. I see Jesus doing that a LOT, so it's valid, right?