Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Taking Advice

(News-Herald, February 2003) “Hey! Your house is on fire!”

There are any number of responses that you might expect to get to this observation. Here are some of the less sensible ones.

“How could you possibly know that? I’ve lived in this house for years, and you’re just passing by. You just don’t understand how this house is.”

“You never liked this house. You’ve never accepted my living in this house. This is just a low cheap way of getting back at it.”

“You’re too young to know about fire or houses. Come back when you’re more wise and sophisticated.”

Taking advice is a real art, almost as difficult as giving it.

It’s a mistake to listen to everything that anybody tells you. Some people will look at the steam rising from the soup on the stove and insist that you dial 911. Some people are easily panicked; others will yell “Fire” just for the entertainment of watching you run around like a cranium-deprived chicken.

But there are many times when you should heed the advice you get. The trick is knowing when to listen.

For me, one sure clue that someone is giving me advice that I should pay attention to is that I am busy coming up with reasons that I shouldn’t have to listen to it.

There’s an old saying— even a stopped clock is right twice a day. I’m convinced that there is nobody who is so dense and dopey that s/he is never, ever right about anything.

So if I’m concentrating on why I shouldn’t have to listen to the messenger instead of taking a look at the message, that’s a good sign that I don’t want to take a look at the message because I don’t like it.

For instance, I still know people who can give earnest arguments about why the data about smoking is inconclusive. Is that because they are such deep, objective scientific-minded folks? No, they’re just people who don’t want to quit smoking, so they search for reasons to suspend common sense. They argue with the messenger, not the message.

This kind of advice-resistance is doubly damaging. On the one hand, there’s the obvious damage if the advice you’re ignoring happens to be right. You can argue with the surgeon-general all you want, but it’s very hard to win an argument with lung cancer.

The less obvious damage of this type of advice-resistant behavior is the wear and tear on the human spirit. When everyone who has ever loved you, cared about you, and invested in your life is telling you that the kitchen is on fire, and you insist on turning off the smoke alarms and coming up with reasons that these folks should be ignored, you pay a price in your relationship with them.

Now, sometimes the price is unavoidable. Sometimes you’re the one who sees the fire and it’s your friends and family telling you there’s no reason to bother the fire department.

But when you stake your self on believing that they are all ignorant, bad, insensitive, and incapable of appreciating why your house really isn’t aflame, that tends to weaken the bonds between you. “I really love you, you ignorant fool,” just doesn’t read well on a Christmas card.

And then once you’re invested in denying their advice, you drift further and further away from reality. “That’s not smoke,” you declare, gritting your teeth. “It’s a special atmospheric disturbance created by rogue aromatherapy saleswomen. It’s a very small fog bank. It’s the dust from dancing fairies.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re an elected official dealing with constituents, a boss dealing with subordinates, or an average human dealing with people who think of themselves as your friends. It is hard to keep your house well when you are more devoted to proving that your would-be advisors are wrong than to doing whatever the house needs to stay healthy.

The secret is to stop arguing with the messenger and start evaluating the message. Listening to what someone has to say, really listening, and considering what’s there costs you nothing. You don’t give up the chance to say, “I’ve looked all over the house, and I don’t see any flames anywhere; therefore, I’ve come to the conclusion that the house is not on fire.”

But by considering what they have to say, you build your relationship up instead of breaking it down. And as an extra bonus, sometimes you even keep your house from burning down.

1 comment:

Condatis said...

This is yours? I'm in awe.

Thanks for the reminder.

From my Flickr