When people come to me for advice, I have a terrible tendency to tell them what to do instead of help them come to their own decision. Our job as bodhisattvas is to help people cultivate within themselves the wisdom to make their own sound decisions. If we always tell people what they should do, then it may help them in their current situation, but it doesn’t help them learn to be able to make their own decisions in future situations. As banal as it may seem, it is the whole “teach a man to fish” logic. Likewise, when somebody makes their own decision, they “own it” and therefore it has much more power within their mind.
When we give people the answers, we also sometimes risk them rejecting our advice because they may feel like we are imposing something on them or somehow depriving them of their freedom to make their own choices. Alternatively, if we give people the answers, we can sometimes create a spiritual laziness in the other person where they just let us tell them what to do without them doing the internal work of figuring out for themselves what they should do (and thereby improve their spiritual decision making). In such a situation, it may seem like they have faith, but we are actually depriving them of developing their own wisdom.
Does this mean we should never give people advice of what to do? Of course not. But there are conditions for when we should do so. First, we should make sure that they are actually asking for our advice. If they are not, we should definitely not give them any (except under very extreme circumstances). Second, we should make it absolutely clear that the other person is completely free to ignore our advice without there being any emotional or relational penalty. Third, we should do so more in general principles of how to approach the problem, not the specifics of what they should exactly do (so you give them a direction, but leave them to figure out how the general principle specifically applies to their situation). Fourth, and most importantly, we should always make sure the other person understands the “why” behind our advice, not just the “what” they should do.
When you do offer advice, do so in the verbal context of telling an illustrative story about something that happened to you once or about somebody else you know without directly applying the story to their situation (let them make that connection). Or at the limit, say something like “if it was me, I would do …”
As a general rule, when we offer advice to others, we should do so as part of a general program of gradually weaning them off of us telling them what to do. In the beginning, people will want us to tell them specifically what they should do. This is not necessarily a bad thing because if they do so for enough time they will learn and gain some experience with spiritual decision making and understand the “why” they are doing things in that way. Over time, they start to become familiar with these “whys” and see that the correct spiritual choice works, so they are then able to better make good decisions in the future on their own. Then we gradually wean them off of us telling them what they should do by asking them more questions which then leads them to their own answers. Eventually, they won’t need to come to us as much because they have become sufficiently familiar with the key principles of their spiritual decision making that they no longer need to come to us.
So as hard as it is for me, I have recently been putting a great deal of emphasis on holding back from telling people what to do and instead just talking generally or asking more questions.
(Ha ha! I just re-read this post, and the whole thing is written in the language of me telling you, the reader, what you should do! How ironic! I was going to go back and change it to “I am trying to do …”, but I find it so funny the way it is that I decided to just leave it. Have a good laugh! I clearly have a long way to go!)
Your turn: What skillful advice do you have about how to help people make good decisions on their own?