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Listening Isn’t About Giving Advice

I cringe a little whenever I hear some well-meaning person say “I’m planning on going into social work—people tell me I give great advice”. Or when someone applies to volunteer at my crisis hotline and says “well, I love giving advice, so this seemed like a great fit”.

See, I think that listening and giving advice are fundamentally different.

Listening involves helping others to tell their stories. It is essentially a receptive process, whether done with “active listening” skills or passive ones. Listening involves becoming a vessel into which others can pour their worries, their passions, their joys, their questions, their hopes, and their fears.

Listening isn’t really about changing the other person. That’s not the goal. The point of listening is to understand better, to connect with the other person, and—perhaps most important—to leave him feeling understood. Sometimes that may lead the person toward new insights or set the stage for potential changes, but the interpersonal connection is the main event.

Feeling understood, feeling heard, feeling like you’re not dealing with things alone, feeling like you matter to another person… these are the hallmarks of good listening.

The paradox is that good listening is simple to grasp and quite difficult to do. In principle, it’s easy: get the person talking, get out of the way, and help them along if they stumble.

In practice, it’s more challenging. It takes experience to know when to offer help, to tell the difference between a person who needs a conversational nudge and a person who’s just searching for the right word. There are all kinds of skills you can learn to help draw out people’s stories, put them at ease, or help them clarify their thinking. But the essence is this:

When you listen, you let the other person fill you with their story. It’s not about changing their story, telling them what it means, telling them what they ought to do about it, or saying what you think. At its heart, listening just involves sharing another person’s story for a while and giving them a chance to tell it.

Giving advice is different.

Advising people involves sharing your knowledge, wisdom, or opinions. Rather than being receptive like listening, giving advice is a dispensing process in which you pour forth your own ideas into the listening vessel of the other person.

That’s still valuable sometimes. Sometimes people want help figuring out what to do about their problems, and they may approach you because of the knowledge and experience you possess. People may genuinely want your advice.

Listen first, though.

Have you ever been to a doctor and found them writing a prescription before you’d finished saying what was wrong? Told a friend about a problem and been told what to do about it before you had even gotten to describing the real issue? Ever had to grit your teeth while someone advised you to do a bunch of things you’d already tried because they didn’t bother to ask what you’d already done?

Then you know what it’s like to receive advice from someone who isn’t listening. It stinks.

Listen first. Help the person tell their story. Invite them to pour it out and share it with you. Let yourself receive, let yourself be the vessel, let yourself be filled.

If, later on, they want advice, they’ll ask. They’ll ask to receive your knowledge, they’ll open themselves to your wisdom. They’ll make themselves the vessels, and they’ll ask to be filled. Once that happens, share what you know. You’ll probably find that, by focusing on listening first, you have a deeper understanding of the situation and can give better advice.

Receiving a story is different from dispensing knowledge, and that’s why listening is pretty much the opposite of giving advice. Both are valuable, but it’s important to start by listening.

Remember, too, that listening matters in its own right, not merely as a prelude to giving advice. Sometimes hearing the stories is enough.

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