Michael responds to “My Misgivings About Advice” by Parker Palmer

Reading “My Misgivings About Advice” by Parker Palmer (click here for full article or see below), I was both appreciative and shaken. Appreciative because I know there is much truth in Parker’s commentary: our clients often arrive fully equipped with their own ideas about what ails them and the available strategies to best manage their distress. They are experts in their own right.

But also shaken because it reminded me of those days when I was aching to give advice and help my clients. Giving advice is deeply engrained in me. In my family, I was clearly the helper, the listener, and sometimes the advice giver. Still am! Though I’m working on it!

When people are voluntarily seeking the help they often believe they have exhausted all avenues to change problematic behaviour or challenge emotions that make life difficult. Our clients have frequently confided in family or friends, read self-help books, and tried the latest advice dispensed through social media. When they make the decision that therapy is the way to go they are making a commitment to confide in another in the hopes of moving forward. At the same time, there is consciousness and wariness.

For involuntary or reluctant clients the therapeutic experience is even more tricky.
My old and wise mentor, Dr. Milton Erickson told me that “human nature is contrary.”
We are built this way. While the DSM does not suggest an “Ambiguous Personality Disorder,” many of us (at least one current political leader excluded) may suffer from this.

Our training and common sense teach us that we must be very cautious in giving advice. Equally important we must be humble about our wisdom and assessment of our power or influence over others.

The “mere” act of witnessing has emerged as one of the most powerful change agents in our repertoire. Having another person listen to innermost feelings and thoughts, the opportunity to be “real” with another human being holds much power. The current crisis in close connection to the people in our community may be unprecedented in human history. Our ancestors over millions of years did not experience a kind of social isolation.

This reality makes the importance of a therapeutic connection even more essential.

For many, being listened to, accepted, and understood by another person is a most powerful intervention. Our minds frequently move quickly to assessment and treatment strategies. This is what we do. Sometimes this can help us find a way to move forward and quickly assist a suffering person by finding the right intervention to help that person deal with maladaptive behaviour and overwhelming emotions.

However, the search for interventions, or even the assessment of why someone is in dire straits, can lead to a shortchanging of the power of witnessing. Just being there, not being in a great hurry to offer the right strategy to get them out of their doldrums can be effective.

One strategy that many of our speakers have raised is offering the question “What did you notice?” to help individuals become better witnesses to themselves. “What did you notice?” offers the possibility to step back from instinctive judgment and behaviour, and suggests the power of observation. Some therapists have the view that mainly helping their clients pay more attention to their behaviour and their feelings are the most helpful thing they can do. This can be seen in the integration of mindfulness techniques in a wide range of therapeutic interventions.

While we help others “notice” their behaviour and its results, equally, we need to take the time to notice our own proclivity to help. Certainly, there are times when our advice will be useful, helpful, and appreciated. Our task is to determine when that advice is most appropriate, whose needs they are meeting, and to continue to reflect on our advice-giving versus our willingness to bear witness and to stay with our clients in the present moment.

My Misgivings About Advice
by Parker Palmer

My misgivings about advice began with my first experience of clinical depression thirty-five years ago. The people who tried to support me had good intentions. But, for the most part, what they did leave me feeling more depressed.

Some went for the nature cure: “Why don’t you get outside and enjoy the sunshine and fresh air? Everything is blooming and it’s such a beautiful day!” When you’re depressed, you know intellectually that it’s beautiful out there. But you can’t feel a bit of that beauty because your feelings are dead — and being reminded of that gap is depressing.

Other would-be helpers tried to spruce up my self-image: “Why so down on yourself? You’ve helped so many people.” But when you’re depressed, the only voice you can hear is one that tells you that you’re a worthless fraud. Those compliments deepened my depression by making me feel that I’d defrauded yet another person: “If he knew what a worm I am, he’d never speak to me again.”

Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard, and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.

Aye, there’s the rub. Many of us “helper” types are as much or more concerned with being seen as good helpers as we are with serving the soul-deep needs of the person who needs help. Witnessing and companioning take time and patience, which we often lack — especially when we’re in the presence of suffering so painful we can barely stand to be there as if we were in danger of catching a contagious disease. We want to apply our “fix,” then cut and run, figuring we’ve done the best we can to “save” the other person.

And yet, we have something better: our gift of self in the form of personal presence and attention, the kind that invites the other’s soul to show up. As Mary Oliver has written, “This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”