As most of us know, Hippocrates is generally referred to as “The Father of Modern Medicine.” As we consider the miracles of medical science, the wonders of life-saving surgery, the formulation of medications to eradicate illness and the development of other preventive procedures should come to mind. And yet, the most memorable of Hippocrates’ contributions is found in his simple directive:
“First, Do No Harm”
Think about it. The pillar and foundation of our health care philosophy, as spoken by its founder, is literally to do nothing! And yet we need to fully understand the positive therapeutic benefits of Hippocrates’ recommendation.
In my years of training professional counselors, one of our first lessons is to avoid giving advice. This may go against what most individuals believe to be our mission as healers. Most people have a distorted view of what helping professionals do. If asked, they would likely report, “Counselors listen to people’s problems, then advise them about what to do.” Certainly, the first half of the assumption is accurate. We do listen to our client’s problems. The second part is both untrue and would, actually, be harmful.
The question then arises, “Why don’t we give advice? All too often, the best option for the client seems patently clear and obvious. And yet, the advice to remain non-committal, to avoid giving advice, is always sound counsel. There are two reasons for this admonition. First, clients don’t want advice, even when they ask for it. They are, instead, seeking agreement and affirmation. The second, more important reason to avoid advice-giving, is that we might be wrong. Our advice would be based upon the biased, subjective input from our client. The other person “not in the room” (i.e their boss, spouse, friend, or child) would probably have a very different point of view about the issue we are
likely discussing with our client. Therefore, our advice would be based upon incomplete information.
OK, we won’t give advice. So what do we do? First, we listen. Listening is an underrated skill and rarely applied. Why? Because most of us can’t wait to share our opinion, our advice. And advice is always expressed, when it comes from our friends and family members, through the “lens of their own experience.” If, for example, a caring friend experienced divorce early in her life, and subsequently found a simpatico partner, she is likely to advise her friend to do the same, if facing a similar marital issue. Another acquaintance may have saved her marriage via work with an effective counselor. She, almost certainly, is going to recommend a similar course of action. A best friend, no matter how caring they may be, is likely to indulge in advising. And back to Hippocrates’ admonition regarding harm, your friend’s words may move you in the wrong, harmful direction.
To paraphrase the old adage about good intentions and disastrous outcomes, it could be said:
The pathway to friendship loss is laid with unwanted advice-giving.
Homework: Think back to your own experiences with advice, both given and received. Was it welcome? Appreciated? Did it produce a good outcome? The answer is likely somewhere between “rarely” and “never.”
Instead, let’s try just listening. It truly will do no harm and will be greatly appreciated..
Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer, but wish we didn’t. ~Erica Jong