I was dismayed to see MYSELF in the brilliant, funny New Yorker piece “Wait but have you tried?” about the advice-giving that is everywhere, where the person you’ve told about an illness or health concern starts offering solutions. It was written by Michelle Rial who suffers from chronic pain —she’s been there— and is known for her very clever charts and graphs of about just this aspect of modern life*. Here’s an excerpt:
Have you tried Whole30?
Autoimmune paleo? The fodmap diet? Keto? Paleo? Have you tried cutting out nightshades?
Do you meditate?
Have you tried Transcendental Meditation? Mantra meditation? Vagus-nerve breathing? Somatic therapy?
What type of chair do you have?
What type of mouse do you have? Have you tried a separated keyboard?
Have you tried a gaming chair?
Have you gotten your blood sugar checked? Maybe it’s your thyroid?
…Would you consider talking to a psychic about it?
Are you a perfectionist?
Have you read Dr. Sarno? You have to read Dr. Sarno. My pain is gone after reading Dr. Sarno. Gone!!!…
It pulled me up short, along with a spate of recent articles about the endless advice-giving that is rampant on social media and in passing conversations. I’ve been the recipient of unsolicited advice myself when struggling with a prolonged illness that did not have a simple solution. It was always well-meaning, fueled at heart by the desire to help, the discomfort of seeing me struggling, and the belief that there is a simple answer, that is, something they’ve tried or simply believe in. But that advice was often exhausting because I was already spending a huge amount of time on various therapies, or had already tried what they suggested. Sometimes the advice was good and I just couldn’t take it in. Rumi nailed it:
Don’t give advice to someone who’s groggy and falling asleep.
Don’t throw seeds on the sand.
Some torn places cannot be patched.
What’s an antidote for this habit of giving people unasked for two-cents?
For me it is this: Just listen. Let the person be. Respect their path. For sure they are doing the best they can to solve the problem in ways that makes sense to them, though it may not the way I would do it. Don’t offer solutions unless asked. Listen.
Listening is more helpful and healing than just about anything. It’s a sort of affirmation that the person is just fine the way they are, in whatever state they are in…
In trying to really listen, I see how often I have the impulse to jump in with a fix. Why not let NOT having an answer be okay?
It takes practice. This nugget from Celeste Headlee’s “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation” helps:
The famed therapist M. Scott Peck said that true listening requires a setting aside of oneself. And sometimes that means setting aside your personal opinion. He said that sensing this acceptance, the speaker will become..more likely to open up the inner recesses of his or her mind to the listener.
When he was recuperating from Covid, wise-man art critic Jerry Saltz posted “The Jerry and Roberta Seven Secrets of Consoling the Sick” on his instagram. It really is spot on:
1. Always follow the patient’s lead. They will show you what they need and can take. If they want anything from you, they will let you know. Do not hover or perform your ‘excellent caregiving skills.’
2. Never be over-achieving self appointed shaman-doctors. Never take it on yourself to prescribe that the patient do this or take that. You must assume that the doctor and the patient have this in hand.
3. Do not recommend a patient change their doctors. The patient must have total confidence in their doctor. Never undermine this.
4. Don’t spook the patient. Never ever ask about “chances,” “odds,” “prognosis,” and never recommend Google. Roberta and I have never – and will never – Google her cancer.
Do the patient the same kindness.
5. Don’t be asking questions. No one knows anything anyway. Ever. Day to day; case by case.
6. Never over-react to the patient. The patient already has enough on their plate without having to reassure ambulance chasers or the constant questions.
7. Because of some peoples traumas or fears, they will not be able to really ever respond to you. This is 100% fine. Do not resent them.
Darlings, I do not write this to seem mean. Keep these pointers in your pockets for the hard times with the ones you love and care about – and you will be a good friend.
*See Michelle Rial’s work in her books Maybe This Will Help: How to Feel Better When Things Stay the Same and Am I Overthinking This?: Over-answering life’s questions in 101 charts.