Thoughts on Advice and Friendship

All I saw was, “Hi, Jena” in my private messages. Two innocuous words of greeting from a kind person, and yet already I felt my nervous system gearing up. Clearly I still have have some stickiness around this topic. Because I knew what was coming: The A-word.

Advice! But not just any advice.

Unsolicited advice!

So, you decide you’re going to do something new. Maybe you’re considering a move. Or having a baby or getting a dog. You share on social media because it’s exciting and you’re someone who likes thinking out loud. But nowhere in your sharing do you ask for input.

Or perhaps you’re struggling and could use some moral and emotional support. You write that it’s a hard night, or your grief got tripped open all over again. Maybe your kiddo is hurting and it hurts to see them hurt.

We are quick to rush in. If things are hard, we want to fix it, share what worked for us, and make suggestions for what to do and how to be. If it’s something fun and exciting, we are eager to make sure they’ve considered their options and are aware of the potential pitfalls, downsides, and other disasters that could ensue.

I imagine it’s a safe bet to say most of us have been on both sides of this equation.

Fear, a need to take people down a notch, a know-it-all attitude, or simply the discomfort of witnessing and being with without necessarily have a say in someone’s choices and decisions — surely all of these play a part in this dynamic.

The mighty pause.

If you have a piece of advice burning a hole in your heart, consider asking before you share it. For example, the aforementioned message went on to say, “May I give you a bit of unasked for advice on selecting a dog breed for your household?”

That would have been a good place to pause and await my answer. (In this case, the person did not pause. She asked and then answered the question herself by proceeding with said advice.)

I am totally guilty of this, for the record. Just a week ago, I took Aviva out to dinner to celebrate the release of her first EP. We shared a nice meal and then walked over to Herrell’s for ice cream and hot fudge. At one point, she was animatedly telling me about her thinking for the next 2-4 years. And I did that thing. I jumped in and told her why she might want to consider x instead of y. Because my daughter is a badass, she called me on it. “Oh, snap,” I said. Busted. But damn if it isn’t a practice to just listen.

During a coaching call last week, I was taking notes when I saw something.

Being witness and being with-ness. Just one letter different. And essentially synonymous. To be with you is to be your witness. To be with me is to bear witness. Whether I’m excitedly talking about what kind of dog we might get or agonizing about whether to quit my job, unless I’m asking you for your advice, I’m not asking you for advice. I’m inviting you to be with me. To be with me in by witnessing and empathizing — whether in excitement or difficulty.

A weapon or a gift.

The summer I came out was the single most confusing, chaotic, charged period of my life. I sought out advice, but also knew ultimately I had to find a way to listen to and trust myself. That wasn’t an easy balance to strike and lord knows I probably made a mess of it. My mind goes back to a few conversations that proffered guidance rather than advice.

One was: “Every decision has gains and losses.”

The second was more of an inquiry: “Do you want to have a near-life experience?”

And the third made an observation, when I was hyper-focused on the other people involved: “What about you in all this?”

These moments became anchors for me during an unmoored moment. What none of them did was tell me I should be careful or cautious. They didn’t warn me or say I was making a huge mistake. They didn’t use words like “implore” or even “encourage.” Encouragement with an agenda is like support with conditions, and it doesn’t feel like love, it feels like pressure.

What makes these conversations stand out nearly eight years later is that they taught me something about presence, about friendship, about being wit(h)ness. They showed me that I was a grown-up woman, capable of trusting myself and making decisions rooted in integrity. They showed me who in my life was able to hold space for me without projecting their own fears or desires.

They pointed me, too, to the kind of friend, coach, parent, and partner I want to be.

Next time a friend shares hard news — maybe they’re going through a nasty divorce, or grieving a loss all over again — or something momentous — they’re expecting, adjusting to an empty nest, or writing a book — notice your first impulse. Is it to jump to your own experience of that thing and tell them what worked and didn’t work well for you? Maybe it’s to say, “I’m so sorry,” or “That sounds big.” Take a moment to notice the difference. Are you in your own head or being witness and being with them, over there, right where they are?

Ask first.

I never knew how powerful it was to simply ask questions: Would you like my advice? What would feel like love/support/presence to you in this moment? 

In December, I participated in a wonderful group with Amy Walsh called The Art of Showing Up. One thing I loved and that really made an impression on me was this: In addition to offering fantastically creative assignments, she asked participants to include a “commenting policy” with every single post. It put the responsibility on the person sharing, to state clearly her needs. This in turn gave the other people in the group some instructions. We would know if someone didn’t want any comments like, “You’re so beautiful.” Maybe they were looking for a particular kind of feedback. If the person posting wanted to hear about other people’s experiences, she could ask for this. If she only wanted feel-good love-me-up-and-down kinds of comments, she could ask for this.

I do this in the Jewels on the Path group, if not using quite the same language. When members share new writing on Wednesdays, I remind them to articulate what kind of response they want. Sometimes, we simply need people to be witness and be with us. Other times, we truly want to know whether a piece of writing “works” for the reader. Where are the holes? Did the ending feel rushed? What did you want more of? Where did you get confused or lost?

Learning how to sit with someone (or someone’s words) without rushing to advice is one side of the equation. Practicing being clear on what it is we want and need is the other.

Not an either/or.

My most enduring friendships have this in common: Presence. Not fixing, not judging, not drama. They show me what it is to be with, to witness, to love, to celebrate, to mourn — and to respect that every single one of us is here having our own experience. I’m so thankful we can learn with and from each other, and also have room to find our own way through this life. How could it be otherwise, really? At the end of the day, no one else lives in your body, your house, your family, your past, your knowing.

At the same time, having people who know and love us and will tell us when we’re in a blind spot or ask us if we’d like to hear their guidance — what would we do without that? Like so many things, it’s not an either/or, but a dance. Websters’ defines advice as “guidance or recommendations concerning prudent future action, typically given by someone regarded as knowledgeable or authoritative.” It’s imperative to recognize that we cannot ultimately be an authority about anyone else’s life. Ever.

Practice: “No Advice, Please.”

Mani and I are in the early stages of exploring getting a dog. Our landlord has said yes. Yay! We are obsessed with French and English bulldogs. We’re also looking at rescue pups at local shelters. We’re doing our research and having lots of conversations.

I am a sharer. I am an open book in many ways. In work, writing, and life, I tend to be all about process, since the vast majority of, well, everything, happens there, in the exploring, in the becoming, in the lived experience, in the days and nights unfolding and revealing and concealing and becoming. What often isn’t immediately apparent in all of this is an answer or an outcome. We LOVE answers and outcomes. The yes or no. The big announcement. The prize. The birth. The publication date. The decision, finally signed, sealed, and delivered.

In the absence of these, I’m continuously stepping into this funny, simple place called here in a time without a past or future called now. I don’t mean to be snarky or esoteric; this really is my practice — arriving over and over into this moment, while always holding an awareness of context. I love being here with you.

Everything unfolds. (Also: Dogs.)

What does that have to do with dogs?

Well, I could wait until we have a new doggie and then share pictures and names and YAY!

But I am not doing that. I’m not waiting to share till I know what’s happening. I’m sharing as we go, because this is life right now. Life right now is: We’re hoping to get a dog, and I don’t know yet what kind of dog or when, and I know many of you love dogs and who wants to be part of the process of seeing how this goes? Not: Do you think getting a dog right now is a good idea for us? Not: What kind of dog do you think we should get? Not: Do you have concerns about certain breeds?

But it’s as much on me as it is on you, to be clear. I can practice saying: No advice, please. That part’s my job. It’s a two-way street, this communication thing, this relationship thing, this being with each other and this being witness to each other thing. It’s a thing I love and cherish and honor. And it’s a thing I’m always learning more about.

p.s. Stay tuned for more doggie news!