There are always going to be people who offer you advice, regardless of whether you asked for it. We do it to others, they do it to us. We want to relate, to interact with one another, and so the more logical choice when someone is telling another of their issues is to immediately search our memories for when something even vaguely similar happened to us – so we can then offer advice.
There is something kind behind this desire to connect, of course. It is usually just a simple desire to help, even if we aren’t entirely sure how to. We want to make people feel like they’re not alone with whatever they’re going through, and that’s wonderful. But we seem to have developed this inability to be present with ‘not-knowing’ – we always feel like we have to have an answer, like we always have to help somehow.
I’m just going to say right now: there is no shame in not knowing something. Sometimes we really want to help someone else when they’re going through something tough, but we don’t know how. That’s okay. Don’t be afraid to sit with it and acknowledge these feelings, or even stating them to the person you want to help. Sometimes they will react badly to this – there are multiple reasons why they might do this – maybe they are frustrated with their situation, and you saying you don’t know how to help kind of makes it feel a bit harder, or maybe they were expecting you to fix everything. Either way, as long as you are genuinely trying to help, then it’s okay to sit with that – you don’t have to have the ‘how’ in place straight away.
In addition to being comfortable with not knowing something, try to observe yourself while in conversation with someone else. Are you actually listening? Or are you just waiting for them to stop talking so it’s your turn again? (Or, even, talking over the top of them because what they’re saying isn’t interesting to you?) Are you looking at them while they talk? And what are you saying in response?
I often find that I am not always listening to someone else – I am paying them attention, for sure, but I am thinking about other things at the same time. Often it’s what I can say next to keep the conversation going, or to paint myself in the best light, or even to get the attention back on myself. (I’m not proud.)
Once you have observed how you act during conversations, try to see if you can empty your mind while you’re listening to someone – give them your complete attention. Actively listen to what they’re saying – process it and, if you don’t understand something they’ve said, repeat certain parts back to them or clarify things into your own words so it shows that you’re listening. Try to focus less on how your own experience relates to someone else, and focus more on what the person is actually saying about their experience – it is often different in some small way to your own, and it doesn’t always help to cut someone off mid-explanation to say ‘yeh, a similar thing happened to me when…’.
Just to be clear, though, there is nothing wrong with trying to share your own experience in the right context, because sometimes what the other person needs most of all is to hear that you have gone through what they have at some point. What I am saying here is that we tend to fall back on this desire to share our own stories rather than listen to the other person.
I think the most important idea to hold in your head when you’re having a conversation with someone is to try and give all your attention to them – for at least one moment in time, they are the most important person. It can be really difficult at times, but if we took the time to connect with someone else, maybe they’d be more likely to connect with us, and then everyone would feel a little less alone in a world full of individuals.
Also check the related topics:Helping a friend Parent and family conflict Managing friendships