If there are people who habitually engage in behavior that directly or indirectly harms themselves or others and we have the opportunity skillfully to help them overcome their habits, we should do so. If we cannot help them directly we should at least pray for them. If we do nothing, we incur a downfall. This differs from the 16th downfall which concerns heavy negative actions.
Most of the time people will respond negatively to us telling them what they shouldn’t be doing, so unless the other person respects us and we think they value our opinion or intervention, it is usually best to not say anything directly. When we feel we are judged, how do we respond? We begin all sorts of self-justifications and we try establish why the other person is wrong. So their “saying something” actually just serves to cause us to grasp even more tightly to our wrong views and to reject the very advice we are receiving. So we need to be skillful. Nobody has asked us to get on our soap box and tell everybody else why they are wrong. The Dharma should be used as a mirror for better seeing our own faults, not a magnifying glass for highlighting others’ faults.
But this does not mean we do nothing. In addition to praying, Venerable Tharchin says we should “own others faults as our own.” His meaning is whenever we perceive a fault or bad habit in somebody else, we should recall that they are a karmic reflection of our own mind and karma. We then find within ourself where we have that same fault (or some variant thereof) and then purge it like bad blood. When we do so, we then show the best possible example of somebody freeing themselves from that person’s particular fault and we ourselves become less faulty. He went on to say that if we remove the fault from ourself, “almost miraculously” the fault will begin to disappear from the other person. The reason for this is obvious – they are a reflection of our own mind anyways.
If the other person does have some respect for us, then it is usually best to just ask questions like, “are you sure that is a wise thing to do?” It is far better for people to reason for themselves why what they are doing is wrong than to be told so. We should also not say anything in front of other people, because then it introduces all sorts of unnecessary concerns about them losing face, etc. If they are asking us to go along with their wrong course of action, we can politely refuse without casting any judgment on them doing so. Often when people realize they are alone in their negativity they stop. On rare occasions, we can say something directly, but when we do so we should keep our message aimed at our view without projecting it onto the other person. Something like, “in my view, that is a bad idea” or “it seems to me you are just harming yourself by continuing to do this.” This leaves people free to take on board our view or not. The irony is it is because we want people to change their view that we must give them the choice to not do so. If we impose our view onto them, we almost invariably invite rebellion. If we are in a position of authority over somebody, such as being a parent or a boss, then we should not hesitate if it is appropriate for us to remove the possibility of somebody harming themselves with their bad habits. You don’t leave knives out with little children and you do what you can to create an environment in which they can make correct choices.
If somebody does come to you asking for advice for how to change their bad habit, we should of course help in every way we can. But we should avoid the mistake of “overdoing it.” As a general rule of thumb, we should give people slightly less than what they are asking for. This creates the cause for them to ask for more. If instead we smother them with all of our “help” they just push us away. Luna Kadampa gives the example of a mother bird feeding their baby birds. Give them just enough, but not too much. In giving advice, it is usually best to just relate personal stories that are somewhat analogous to the person’s situation without you directly applying the conclusion of the story to their situation. Let them make that final connection and then they will own the conclusion as their own. Or you can explain “general principles when thinking about questions such as this” and then let them apply those principles in whatever way seems most appropriate to them. Above all, we should completely let go of any judgment of the other person and any attachment to them taking any particular course of action. When we are attached to the other person changing, we are actually creating obstacles to them doing so. Instead, we need to have no personal need for the person to change in any way. If we have attachment to them changing, people will know we have an ulterior motive for our advice and they will reject it on those grounds alone – even if it is exactly the advice they need to hear.