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Holy Spirit disruptions: Give less advice

Lynne Baab • Thursday October 14 2021

Holy Spirit disruptions: Give less advice

I never really understood or appreciated small talk until we lived in Dunedin, New Zealand, for ten years. The weather there often changes more than once each day. When chatting with the administrative people in my department at the university or with checkers at the grocery store, I could say, “Did you enjoy that sunny Sunday afternoon?” or “Wasn’t that windstorm amazing?” Weather was a fuel for communicating warmth, without taking the time to interact deeply. Weather talk, like all small talk at its best, says, “I care about you but I don’t have the time/energy/inclination for a deep conversation right now.”

In a recent New York Times article, Tressie McMillan Cottom, writer, sociologist and professor, argues that advice giving sometimes functions like small talk. This distresses me. McMillan Cottom believes that advice giving is very popular in American society right now. She says that most advice “feels like an aggressive judgment of my entire being, a kind of property assessment.” I’m with her there. I really dislike getting advice that I didn’t ask for, so receiving advice as small talk does not communicate care to me in any way.

However, I love to give advice. This juxtaposition of giving something to others that I dislike receiving came to the forefront for me in 2011 and 2012 when I was doing the research for my book on listening. I read multiple books and textbooks on interpersonal communication. Many of them described advice giving under a larger category of the things we do that shortcut listening. When we feel any kind of discomfort as we listen, most of us have favored strategies to increase our comfort, such as taking the conversation back by telling our own story, asking a question to change the subject, shifting to a practical task (“let’s get those dishes done), and giving advice.

From reading all those books, and from the interviews about listening I conducted with ministers and leaders of congregations, I came to realize that the biggest obstacle to good listening is the inner noise we experience when people talk. When people describe a problem, we may feel uneasy letting the problem sit there unsolved. We may feel we are supposed to know how to fix it. I wrote last week about the Holy Spirit’s call to me to acknowledge that other people’s lives belong to them, not to me.

Through my listening research, the Holy Spirit exposed my hypocrisy, that I dislike getting advice but enjoy giving it. I am trying to be more aware of what’s going on inside of me when I feel that urge to jump in with advice. Why am I uncomfortable with letting the situation the other person is describing belong to them? Why am I uncomfortable with sadness, struggles, and uncertainty when others describe their life? Why do I act like sadness, struggles, and uncertainty should be solved, and solved by me? My propensity to give advice has been a major source of pondering for the past decade and a significant Holy Spirit disruption.

Perhaps because of that pondering, I was totally revolted at the pattern described by Tressie McMillan Cottom of people using advice as small talk: strangers in line in a coffee shop giving advice to the person standing next to them as a way to connect. Here are some of McMillan Cottom’s thoughts about advice. Read these words as if Jesus were sitting right beside you. Ask him what he thinks about your patterns of giving advice.

“That is the thing about advice: It is seductive. Even though we resist being judged, we enjoy being the judge. Advice is a method by which we manipulate status to negotiate interpersonal interactions. By giving advice, we enact tiny theaters of social dominance to signal or procure our social status over others. . . . We also use advice giving to reinforce our self-perception as one who knows, and cultivate that perception in others.” (Why Everyone Is Always Giving Unsolicited Advice,” New York Times, October 1, 2021)

Ouch! May God guide us into loving patterns of conversation.

(Next week: care not cure. Illustration by Dave Baab. I love getting new subscribers. Sign up below to receive an email when I post on this blog.)

Need a boost in challenging times? Do you find it hard to navigate both sadness and gratitude? Check out my book, Two Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian Life, which encourages us to hold grief in one hand and gratitude in the other. It guides us into experiencing both the brokenness and abundance of God's world with authenticity and hope, drawing on the Psalms, Jesus, Paul, and personal experience. It is available for kindle and in paperback, 80 pages. To see my other books and Bible study guides, look here.

Some previous posts that mention advice giving:

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