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!

11 thoughts on “Thoughts on Advice and Friendship

    • Jena Schwartz says:

      It’s not easy. I also find that the more I work on it, the deeper my connections with people (and to myself) are able to become. Thank you for reading, Julie. xo

  1. Yes, this. I have decided to back off of Facebook due to the overwhelming negativity AND unsolicited advice. I posted something I *thought* was funny about laundry and got all kinds of advice on how to do laundry–as if I have not been doing it for 40 years! I cringe against the notion that I am responsible to say “No advice please”. Shouldn’t people know better? Shouldn’t people use the Golden Rule? But I do hear you. I do. Perhaps I do need to take responsibility for what I put out there and how I communicate it. I am trained as a counselor and so know the “witness” response and hesitate before giving even asked-for advice. Perhaps my failure is in expecting others to be like me, when I actually had specific training in this.
    Definitely food for thought here.

    • Jena Schwartz says:

      You make such good points — not everyone has that training. And also the hesitation to give even asked-for advice! Appreciating that. I remember having a friend who basically said no, she would never give advice even when asked for it. Yes to the food for thought.

  2. Jena, this post resonated for so many reasons. You offered some brilliant insight & really made me think about my own practice of giving unsolicited advice (I’m bad for it, especially with my nearest and dearest). The timing couldn’t have been better (I’ve recently been on the receiving end of some rather annoying and unwanted advice, and I’m figuring out how to kindly tell the “advisor” that I don’t want that kind of advice, anymore).

    I started reading the post, then backed up and read the whole thing to my wife, so we could learn together, and discuss the points you raised. I’m sure we’ll each reflect on points you raised again and again.

    Also: doggie!! Here’s my advice (HAHA) – enjoy the hell out of the process and keep us updated. Dying to meet your new family member: whoever, whenever.

    • Jena Schwartz says:

      Leah, I love that you read this to your wife to discuss. (I did the same thing!) Good luck with the conversation with your unwanted-advice giver.

  3. Anita Selec says:

    For the record. The advisor did apologize to the advisee! 🙂 Been thinking. Yes, I have been known to do that, and sometimes even BEFORE inserting foot into my mouth. I wonder if giving advice is a cultural thing that varies by cultures and FB “rules of engagement”? I am in groups where people post stuff usually asking for advice and so they get it and often it is, of course, of completely different sides. One side is saying do white, the other side saying do black and a few poor souls in the middle are saying that gray is good as well. I usually read all comments and reject some advise and value others. Maybe I have developed more of a mindset of gotta advise because that’s what one does on FB??!!?? Not an excuse, just trying to figure out where it all came from. But that aside, I am wondering how much culture plays a role in giving advice? Here in the Balkans where I have been living for 8 years, it is often a given that people will comment on what somebody else does, wears, says, and how that person acts. Often those comments are exceedingly blunt. I will always remember the comment of my husband’s best friend when he met me “Oh, you look better in real life than you do in your pictures.” Hmmmmm… !   I think I may have soaked up a bit more of Balkan culture than I realized. I am not trying to come up with excuses for unsolicited advice, rather I am trying to look for where it comes from. It wasn’t coming from a negative place, trying to put you down. More like the opposite end, trying to help. But obviously trying to help when it hasn’t been asked for is a stupid thing to do. Good luck with your puppy search and wishing you find a great dog that you have years of love with.

  4. Jen says:

    Love this. I needed to see it, too. I’ve been wrestling with a friend who has been telling me horror stories – I give her advice – she tells me everything is ok, that she needs to figure out how to make him happy, etc. I’m torn – I care about her, we have a relationship – but if she’s going to stay with a man who clearly can be abusive and tell me about it, I can’t handle it. I can stop giving advice, but do I also ignore my discomfort? (And this is SOLICITED advice!!) ❤️

    • Jena Schwartz says:

      Jen, I feel for your friend — and you. That’s a tough spot to be in. It’s hard to see someone you love in an abusive situation. I don’t have any real advice for you (see? even solicited, I’m wary of advice). I would say it’s never wise to ignore your own feelings, discomfort in this case. It sounds like you and your friend may be in a bit of a cycle (you give advice, she reassures you, nothing changes). If that’s the case, breaking your part of the cycle might be a kind of love. But I also worry for her safety.

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