Unsolicited Advice and Right Listening

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Note:  Although I’ve been tagging all my posts with Nano Poblano, when I search the tag, my posts on this particular blog aren’t showing up in my reader.  If anyone from the Poblano group who also follows me can give me a heads up as to whether posts you’ve seen through your subscription also show up when you’re reading the Poblano posts, I’d really appreciate it.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!  So love and appreciate this crowd.  Hope you had a lovely holiday if you were celebrating and a great day if you were not.

After raising issues about what kinds of comments are appropriate in my last post I decided to refurbish and update the post I mentioned about Right Listening and Unsolicited Advice.  The issue was a comment that offered a lot of advice I’d not asked for.  Lots of viewpoints showed up in the comments and it seemed like a good moment to mention the notion of Right Listening and it’s guideline:  avoid giving unsolicited advice.

Right speech is part of the Buddhist Eightfold Path. It’s a huge topic with lots of subcategories. I almost feel as if right listening should have a ninth slot on the Path because it seems too important to be subsumed under right speech. In full disclosure, I’ve learned enough about it to be able to teach Right Speech classes and I have a couple of friends who’ve become master practitioners so I know what it looks like in action, but though I am good at it when I’m sitting in practice with someone, in daily life, well, let’s just say I’m a work in progress.

Both right speech and right listening require you to stay mindful and to learn to be honest with yourself and therefore in what you say. I think right listening has further challenges. For now, I’m just going to look at the aspect of right listening that asks you not to offer unsolicited opinions or advice.

Literally that means that if a friend has just told you about a problem she’s having but has not asked you to tell her what you think she should do, then you should not offer an opinion.  Nor should you hear about someone’s project or plan and immediately start offering advice on how to better it or why not to do it unless they’ve specifically asked you to give advice.

Right speech and listening is a dance of communication in which you each try to hold a space that helps the other person to explore deeper into their thoughts and feelings so that you communicate from the heart.  Your job as a listener is to try to put aside your own thoughts and feelings—a great spiritual exercise—in order to really hear what your friend thinks and feels and to ask neutral questions that help her to explore more deeply into her topic and what she feels about it than she has before.

Our conversational habit as a culture (U.S.) is to step in every time someone mentions a problem or question and start offering suggestions and opinions, so I think it’s a huge challenge to practice right listening.  In the world of blogging, this shows up when people write posts in which they complain or discuss an issue but do not ask for readers to supply them with solutions.  And then in the comments one or more people tell them what they should do.

Whether face to face or in blogging, when you jump in with solutions you’re burdening the other person with your opinions — often fueled by your issues, fears, and unexamined beliefs.  Instead of inviting this person to explore his/her own heart and helping them to examine their own wishes by asking neutral questions, you’re substituting your thoughts for theirs.

Even when you know someone well enough that you’re sure you know what they really want, try to step back and leave space for her to decide on something unexpected but even more right for her.  Even when you love someone dearly and want to save or protect or circumvent, get yourself out of the way and see what you can do to help him figure out what’s best for him– even if it’s not what you would do.

Many unsolicited-advice comments demonstrate a lack of familiarity with the post on which they’re commenting. Right listening requires, well…  actually listening.  Many comments I read on my blog and on other blogs feel like the writer has an agenda of some sort or had a button pushed by some phrase that unleashed a lot of words that don’t address the post’s content; in some cases they give advice that completely ignores what the post-er said.

For the person who wrote the post, that often feels like you weren’t “listening” at all.  If you want to really engage with another blogger, try to read/listen carefully. Pay attention and understand their post and if you comment, comment on material that’s actually in the post, not on the chatter that’s in your head.  If you’re not sure what something meant, ask.  If you’re not sure whether they want advice, ask.  If you want more info to figure out where it seems like they’re headed , ask.  Most people love to be heard.  When you ask for more information based on what they wrote, they feel heard and the questions feel like you really want to understand them.

It’s amazing how much deeper relationships can become when you’re really listening, when you set yourself aside and put the other person first.  When you learn to take your beliefs and opinions out of the equation and try to move deeper and deeper into the other person’s thoughts and wishes…   that’s when you’re connecting from the heart.

For a few years after I learned about right speech at Nine Gates I had a couple of practice buddies and a greater consciousness about the opinions thing so I was better about avoiding it. But old habits are hard to break and that particular habit is so much a part of the way everybody seems to converse that I fell back into it and I know I unconsciously offer that unsolicited advice more often than I’d like.

I try to shift that practice by taking a moment before I respond—can I be that mindful? whole other question… I like Sylvia Boorstein’s question, “Is what I’m about to say an improvement on silence?” I think a moment taken to ask that question would change a whole lot of what comes out of my mouth. Might change what you write in comments.  Anyone care to try it for a while? I’d be interested to dialog about how people do with it and how it feels.

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2 thoughts on “Unsolicited Advice and Right Listening

  1. The flip side of this is my own thought that we don’t try to help each enough.

    I am not Buddhist and while I respect your path and see value in a great deal of its ways, it is not my path and I have no interest in it being my path. My path is Paganism and, at least the way I practice it, giving each other advice and being there for each other is in line with exactly what it all stands for. And taken to an extreme, any tenet on how to behave is basically advice on how to live.

    For me, during the times I have had, people caring enough to try and help me has meant everything. Even if it was help that wouldn’t work for me for one reason or another, people offered me advice because they have stopped worrying about themselves and were worrying about me. There were times it was all I had to hang on to.

    That’s huge. And, for me, welcome.

    That said, I won’t put what works for me on you.

  2. Pingback: Of Right Listening Instead Of Unsolicited Advising | Aligning With Truth

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