The funny thing about advice is we all like to give it, but few of us ever take it. I guess that would be influenced in large part by the advice and whether it was solicited or unsolicited. Unsolicited advice, despite its intention, is usually met with a certain degree of resentment.
Throughout my life various people have given me advice. Sometimes their words held special meaning. My dad, for instance, always counseled me on the dangers of negative thinking and not believing in yourself. Another bit of cogent advice he gave me right before I left for the army was, “Never lend anything you can’t afford to lose.” That got me through a lot of situations over the next three years with my money still in my pocket.
My high school geometry teacher, Mr. Lopotka, was fond of inserting bits of advice between theorems and angles. “The difference between an adult and a child,” he was fond of saying, “is an adult won’t do something unless he’s willing to take the responsibility for the consequences of his actions.” I guess that could be considered a theorem of sorts.
When I was a rookie cop in training we stopped a bunch of kids in a car, one of whom had possibly been involved in a burglary. As the low man on the totem pole, I was in charge of getting their identifications and handed one girl’s driver’s license to another officer since I hadn’t been cleared to use the radio. Somehow her license got misplaced and she was quite upset. After dealing with her screaming and then her irate father who subsequently showed up on the scene, we checked our pockets but the driver’s license could not be found. One of the other, more experienced officers gave me an unsolicited admonishment, “Let this be a lesson to you. If you take somebody’s ID, hold on to it yourself and don’t give it to anybody.” I took my lumps for that one, although I’m sure I gave it either to him or to my training officer.
But why do we feel compelled to give advice in the first place? Perhaps it’s a desire to help others . . . to give them the benefit of our experience so they can learn from our mistakes. Or, as in the case of the lost DL, it’s a chance to blow off steam by assessing blame. Whatever the underlying rationale, it’s good to consider what effect the advice will have on its intended target. Few of us are receptive to being lectured as to what we should or should not have done. And nobody likes to hear his shortcoming or mistake dragged out in public.
So here’s my advice, on giving advice. (If you don’t want to hear it, stop reading now.)
If you’re going to give unsolicited advice, consider the pros and cons. What’s your underlying motivation? Is it going to help the person or embarrass him? Consider how the person may react. If there’s a chance he’ll be embarrassed, pick your time and location carefully. No one likes to be criticized in front of others, so make it private if you can. And make sure you’re giving the advice for the right reasons. If you’re spouting off what the person should have done because you’ve both been involved in some sort of embarrassing situation, perhaps the advice giving is best left to another time, or skipped altogether.
And finally, what’s the best advice I ever got?
I’d have to go back to my childhood and recall some advice that my grandfather gave me a long, long time ago. My grandfather was a navy lifer with little formal education, but he was what you call self-taught. He loved to read and gave me my first Thesaurus. I still have the book and my grandfather’s inscription inside the front cover: “A man’s thoughts are, by necessity, limited by his vocabulary.” He was also a great chess player and taught me to play as well. When I once asked him how he’d gotten so good at the game, he replied it was all about learning to read the other guy and not letting him know what you had planned. This philosophy had made him a champ in the navy boxing circuit as well.
And what, you may wonder, was this cogent advice that he gave me?
“Never overlook an opportunity to keep your mouth shut,” he said.
If I would have done that simple thing a lot more in my life, I could have avoided a lot of unpleasant situations.