“Anyone who isn't embarrassed by who they were last year probably isn't learning enough.” ― Alain de Botton
In my case, it’s who I was 10 years ago when I thought I knew what was best for everyone. The fact that it makes me cringe a little now is a sign of how far I've come. For most of us, it's easy to look at things we did that we are not proud of and use it to feed a narrative that we're not okay. What it really means is that we're more than okay, we're growing and that's something we can feel good about.
It was about ten years ago when I joined the Entrepreneurs Organization that I learned about the Gestalt Protocol, a concept that's had a big impact on my life.
Gestalt Protocol is, essentially, not giving unsolicited advice. When someone shares a problem you can share your own relevant experience. This means that you are simply relating what happened to you in a similar situation. Sentences start with “I” instead of “You” and they do not contain the word “should”. You share a specific experience and don’t speak in generalities.
Embarrassing as it is to admit, I thought I knew what people should do and didn’t hesitate to tell them. I had plenty of sentences that started with “You should…..”
I literally thought I knew what was best for them better than they did and that I was being “helpful” by telling them what they should do.
What I was really doing was putting myself in the parent position, and pushing them into a child position. No one ever feels empowered by being told what they should do. That only makes sense because the advice giver has just demonstrated that they do not have confidence that you can handle it on your own. It's disempowering and it's also disrespectful.
While various people might have different opinions and advice about what someone should do, a relevant experience is unarguable, it's your experience. There are no shoulds involved. Because, at the end of the day, that's all we really know - our own experience. We can't know what's best for another person.
Each of us has our own path. Maybe it's something we need to learn but we will only learn it through our own experiences and only when we're ready to learn it. If we could learn what we are here to learn just by having someone explain it to us we could read a book and be done. That's not how it works though and we all know it.
The difference with Gestalt Protocol is that you can have the benefit of other people's experience in its raw form without all the interpretations and opinions attached. It's an opportunity to observe how the situation played out for other people and in a way gain life experience without anyone taking a one-up or being pushed into a one-down position.
How many times has someone, unbidden, told you what to do and left you feeling grateful and empowered? For me, the answer is never. That's for two reasons. First, even if it were the best advice in the world it would have to come at a time I'm ready to hear it. If I'm stuck it probably means I'm not ready because when I am ready I will be actively seeking solutions and asking people about their experiences. Sadly, sometimes I have to stew in my misery for a while before I'm ready to face the issue. The second reason is that I can feel that I have been pushed into a one-down position by the unsolicited advice giver and no one is ever grateful for that.
What it means to take a superior position
People will often claim a role in a relationship. It might be the victim role that leaves only the perpetrator for the other person or it might be the parental "I know what's best for you" leaving only the child role for the other person.
The healthiest and most dynamic relationships are those that celebrate each other's strengths and take turns supporting and being supported.
Here's how I learned this lesson the hard way.
I once had an employee who we knew we were going to need to let go in six months because our business was changing. She was always talking about how tight money had been for her all her life. So I thought I would be "generous" and give her six months' notice so she would have plenty of time to find another job. I even had someone help her sort out her finances.
Was she grateful? No, of course not. She was resentful because I wasn't treating her like a competent adult. I was playing both sides of the ping pong table, mine and hers which is what we do when we give people unsolicited advice. It was up to her to manage her money and find a job with reasonable notice. Even if I had my doubts it wasn't up to me to try to manage the situation for her.
I got to feel more powerful and in charge while I was putting her in a less powerful position. I wasn't being helpful, I was infantilizing her and disrespecting her boundaries.
The upshot? Shall we say that she was less than kind about her time at our company on social media. That's because I took a one-up position in the name of generosity and whether she understood the dynamic or not, she felt it.
Why do people give unsolicited advice?
In my case, I literally believed that I knew better what someone should do than they themselves did. Now it seems shockingly disrespectful to me.
Our big fat egos are a big reason why we feel we know best even if we tell ourselves we're just being helpful.
Holding ourselves separate to avoid being vulnerable
The other reason is more subtle. For me, it was a way of keeping myself separate and special, above the fray. The feeling that I had special knowledge, special insight, and special understanding that other people didn't have kept me from the vulnerability of being human.
When we feel like we belong it's like we are drops of water in the wave. Nothing separates us from our humanity and from other people. For some of us, this is too vulnerable and I think this was a factor for me too. If the world of other people is vulnerable for us we try to manage that feeling of vulnerability. We do that by setting ourselves above, above criticism, and also above real connection. Giving unsolicited advice is simply a way of setting ourselves above the vulnerability of our humanity.
It was a bad habit that took some time to break. As I began to let go of giving unsolicited advice, I felt a pleasant lightness. I realized that each of us is responsible for our own path. We can support each other but we cannot define the path for another person. I was developing healthy boundaries.
At first, it was hard to watch when it looked like someone was about to make a big mistake but over time I got easier with it. One thing that helped was how much better it felt when I let go of trying to manage other people's outcomes.
My friends will tell you that I still slip up sometimes but when I do, it feels awful. I remember the feeling of lightness and of being a drop of water in the wave of the oneness and I know it's always there for me.
- Notice how it feels when someone gives you unsolicited advice.
- Notice how it feels when you give someone unsolicited advice.
What's true for you? Use your journal to reflect on your experience and where it's pointing you.
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