Damage Control

I treat my friends well but sometimes I slip up and give unwanted advice or opinions. When I do, I promptly admit that I was wrong.  It’s not a good idea to defend the error.  Better to say, “I’m sorry,” than, “Well you do look fat in that dress.”   I believe that’s called damage control.

I don’t suppose there is anyone on the planet who has not said something that hurt the feelings of a friend or relative at some time or other. Some people make a habit of saying rude or critical things to their loved ones. Most of us try to be pleasant but, even with the best of intentions, we make hurtful mistakes.

It is my intention to speak only love and I have spent years overcoming an earlier critical viewpoint. I was very critical of myself and others when I was younger, partly because I wanted to improve life. Like most people in our culture I was  taught to seek out the problem and solve it.

Solving the problem is a nice scientific attitude that works when you are looking for a cure for some rare disease. It doesn’t work as well when you volunteer advice to a friend. Especially when that advice begins with the phrase, “Your problem is…” Or the much softer but equally insulting, “Have you ever considered?…”

Of course the fat girl has considered going on a diet. And she already knows that her problem is that she eats too many fattening foods. She wouldn’t be your friend if she were stupid.

We do have the capacity to learn from each other and advice can sometimes be helpful. However, unsolicited advice nearly always serves to make the other person feel worse. It can also make that person resent you.

Before I lost that hundred and fifteen pounds, a lot of well-meaning people who genuinely meant to be helpful, suggested myriad diet and exercise plans they thought I should try. I did not take their advice and I usually resented their words. I dropped a couple of people because of their persistent need to “fix” me.

I knew intellectually that they probably meant well but it felt as though they were telling me they were superior. I wanted to lose weight and I wasn’t ready to take the steps they outlined. I hated being fat and I resented them.

Weight isn’t the only issue that triggers unsolicited advice. Other subjects include, managing your spouse, raising your children, succeeding at work, making friends, dressing yourself, decorating your home, cooking your dinners, cleaning your house and praying to your God. That’s only the short list. It goes on and on.

Think long and hard before you give unsolicited advice. In general, wait until you are asked. Even then, it is good to be cautious because the person with the problem probably has a lot of emotional energy around the issue. Pointing out what is wrong with someone else or giving advice puts us in the “superior” role of judge or critic. Hurt feelings happen. Everyone feels bad, worse and/or sorry!

I have seen a lot of hurt feelings that happened despite good intentions. When we love someone, it is natural to want to help them. We believe we can do that when we see what is going wrong or when we have travelled the same road. I know it is difficult to watch people you love struggle with an issue and I am only saying that it is good to wait before you jump in to solve it. Remember that the love and trust you offer is genuine help all by itself. Your love may help the person you are concerned about open up and ask for help. Trust is powerful.

It is certainly true that people who have already overcome a particular problem can be very helpful to others. Witness the power of 12 Step meetings. But 12 Step meetings have strict rules about something they call crosstalk.

Crosstalk is a descriptive word for a common form of communication that doesn’t always work well in regular conversation and is forbidden in meetings. When people speak in a meeting others listen and they never argue or offer advice. The meeting is designed to be a safe space where people can say what they are feeling without fear of criticism or contradiction.

Crosstalk takes many forms and no matter how loving the motive, is apt to be interpreted as negative. For example, if I say, “I feel as though the world is a terrible place,” I don’t need to have that belief reinforced by anyone else agreeing with me.

Neither do I need for anyone to argue with me and say, “Oh, no, life is wonderful!” Nor do I want anyone to say, “You’d feel better if you ate healthier food”.  While these responses may be intended to help, especially if I feel depressed, I probably will not hear them as helpful. On the other hand, I need to feel free to tell someone how I feel so I can begin to heal.

I’ve often thought it would be wonderful if we brought a little of that 12 Step philosophy on conversation into our ordinary lives. Good listeners ae rare even though we know that advice is intrusive rather than helpful. Criticism is almost never constructive and reinforcing negative feelings just makes things worse.

There are ways to respond to other people that are not crosstalk. One way is to listen and then say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Or, “It’s too bad you are having a rough time. You deserve the best.”

I do believe in giving honest opinions and advice when people ask me directly. For instance, if someone asks me how I manage to be such a prolific writer, I tell them about the self-management skills I’ve learned. For example, I take my focus off the writing and make my goal about spending so much time at my computer.

I will also tell anyone who asks how I’ve lost the weight. All I do is count calories and keep under 1200 a day and I eat healthy food I like. It’s simple when you decide to do it.

I offer my life wisdom the same way I write this blog when I am asked, but I try not to preach to my friends and relatives. A lot of what I am suggesting today is really good manners in communication.

I used to teach communication skills as a part of my job as a public school English teacher. Kids needed to learn to listen and speak politely and to ask questions when they didn’t understand. I learned a lot when I spent all those years in the seventh grade. One of the most important things I learned was how true a famous quote from an anonymous genius is. You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink.

Ask yourself

How are my communication skills?

Did  I offer unwanted advice yesterday?

Do I need to tell anyone I was wrong?

Is this topic something I want to journal about?



2 Comments on “Damage Control”

  1. Sally Carroll says:

    Dear Dr. Jane,
    Thank you for your words of inspiration. Your writing inspires me… and the clarity you offer about well meaning friends… is quite refreshing. I have a marvelous opportunity and I believe it is a gift. My daughter referred me to an agency called Testimony Life. I met with the director and another individual about the possibility of writing grant proposals for their wonderful work. The focus of the agency is threefold. They provide counseling, adventure and soul… I could not pass up this opportunity and they have invited me to their staff meeting tomorrow and they want me to post My Story on their website under Legacy… I am doing an edit and would really love to talk to you… This could really lead into something full time for me as they had several areas of interest where I could be a “part of.” Could you give me a call at your convenience? Thanks Sally

  2. Ellen Sheive says:

    WOW and OMG!!! Dr. Jane — this is, for me, the very BEST blog (and I have loved many of them personally) you have written so far. (I’m wondering, in my Ellen way, what inspired you to write this one….). This blog talks about a very important and somewhat painful part of my life — when I became my own version of a “wise woman”. Oh, I so wanted to impart that wisdom and actual new knowledge to just everyone. I thought everyone would be as delighted as me to learn of all these things…. But, alas, not so!! I learned it the hard way (perhaps, your way too) that we each take in our wisdom when we are ready. This reminds me of the great statment: “when the student is ready, the teacher appears!!!!”. I learned the absolute truth of that in my life. So, for many years now, I do relax in this wisdom.. And, you know what?! God, still sends me people to mentor and makes me the teacher (even though I’m really “officially” retired). And, I am so blessed to say that I now know how to figure out when I’m truly being invited by someone to share my knowledge/spirit to their benefit.

    It is , of course, like being a SOM Practitioner. When a prayer REQUEST is made — then you have the spiritual “go-ahead” to TREAT. I learned how to wait for the “request” in all areas. And, so, I feel soooo much more connected to God in my service – as I am required/requested.

    Thank you again for this particular “sharing of your wisdom”!!! XXXOOO

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