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Why Empathy Can Sometimes Help More Than Advice

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“I have just three things to teach simplicity patience compassion these three are your greatest treasures.” ~Lao Tzu

I have two teenagers. Anyone with children knows these years can bring their challenges. One minute they behave like a four year old and the next they are as mature as an adult. These fluctuations can pose difficult times.

One day, after a particularly emotional and tough interaction with my son, I called my mother for advice. She had by all accounts raised three successful sons.

After a long and detailed discussion of what had happened she said, “Oh Honey, I’m so sorry. It’s so hard.”

That was it, not a single word of advice—just some empathy. I pictured her on her old fashioned phone with the rotary dial and the wires just making a simple statement. I was frustrated. I wanted advice; I wanted some magical activity or action plan that I could use to make it better.

In my opinion this interaction with my mom was useless.

Feeling frustrated, I called a very dear friend who has two teenage children and whose mother is a PHD psychiatrist. With children the same age we had been sharing child-rearing stories for many years.

I figured with that level of education his mother must have some advice. I gave him a short synopsis of the story and asked if he thought his mother could provide some any advice. “Oh yeah…” he responded, in a way that I knew there was a story to follow.

He told me that a couple of weeks earlier he had been working on a project in London that required working 16 hour days. Exhausted from both the hard work and plane ride home, he landed in the US after a long flight home.

When he landed he turned on his phone and saw an email from his mother. Delighted to hear from his mother who he had not corresponded with in a while, he read the email immediately.

The email was very a long description of her concern for him. While the email was articulate and detailed, it was full of detailed changes of he “should” make for both his children and his family.

He interpreted the message from his mom as criticism that he was not doing what he should, and his own mother was telling him he needed to change. Before deleting the email he responded to his mother, “Please don’t send any more emails like this.” 

Even as he retold the story I could hear how much the email had hurt his feelings.

My dear friend is thoughtful, articulate, kind, hardworking, good looking, and brilliant. My own wife often says that she wishes I were more like him. In short, he’s a great dad and a wonderful husband.

Advice Is Not Always What We Need

After hearing this story, I realized there wasn’t anything my mother could say that was going to help me in my situation with my son. Advice from her about what I “should” do differently was going to feel like criticism or be impossible to act on.

I had created my own problems and could create my own solutions like most of us can. Often times we simply lack the confidence or the self-respect to make the necessary changes.

Even though I did not know it at the time my mother’s simple empathy and acknowledgement of the difficult situation was the thing I needed. 

I wanted a magical solution but it didn’t exist. Her empathy and acknowledgement of the challenge was all I needed. Like most advice, we seldom know we need it when we receive it. If it’s truly useful we absorb it and use it without thinking about it.

Today when I have problems with my teenagers I hear her voice telling me, “Oh Honey, it’s so hard.” Sometimes it is, and that’s okay.

How to Remember

Remember, when someone calls for personal advice the most valuable thing we can do is acknowledge the situation without judgment and remind them that we care deeply. My mother does it with a Bostonian’s paucity of words. Most of us need to say more.

In an effort to remind myself of this lesson, I have created a simple picture of the old fashion telephone my mother used until very recently. I post the picture in my workspace where I receive the majority of my calls.

It’s there to remind me that most people do not want the instructions on “what to” or “how to” fix their problems, but rather to be reminded we care, are willing to listen and understand that sometimes life’s problems are not easy to solve.

Photo by Anant Rohankar

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About James Gleason

James Gleason is an author and motivational speaker who just released a book of motivational stories and pictures Big Button Little Button: Powerful Pictures For Permanent Change, which is available now on Amazon.com.  He can be reached at Gleasonpictures@gmail.com.

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  • En En

    This reminds me of an incident: I was recently struggling with my work/job and was ranting about wanted to quit/resign with my husband. He went on and told me about how my perspective of ‘a job’ was wrong and that i’m not getting younger and it won’t be easy to get a job if i were quit and our finances will be affected if i stopped working etc etc. it didn’t help. it really didn’t.

    I told him I don’t need him to tell me all these but his response was “then what for do you need to complain about it if you’re not expecting my advice?” he went on saying he was ‘trying to help’ by giving advices and I was being stubborn not to listen to him. But he was insistent, “You’re describing a problem and I’m analyzing it logically for you.” Then I told him, “If i can’t even tell you my troubles to seek comfort & support from you, we shouldn’t even be having this conversation. I only need you to tell me that everything it’s going to be ok and you’re here with me. Your empathy works better than your advice.”

  • http://www.AchieveTheGreenBeretWay.com/welcome Michael Martel

    I went through a persona development/leadership course awhile back where I learned a striking lesson. We were practicing different emotions so that we could lead our teams more effectively.

    I learned that support was best provided a neutral position – not encouragement, sympathy or anything else. We best support others through being neutral, listening and NOT providing any sort of feedback. What the person needs is to talk it out in front of others and come to their own solution.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  • Just A. Guy

    I would say empathy is almost always better than advice, but would go even further and say that advice is rarely ever accepted if empathy is not present. It is difficult to take advice from someone who we don’t feel has truly heard the problem. Freud’s greatest achievement, in my mind, was that talking about a problem is often all that is needed to solve it, the “talking cure”.

  • Di

    That’s a wonderful story James. Thank you for that. I’ll remember that now my children are beginning their marriages. Bye from Di in Australia.

  • Olivia

    So true. Yesterday I bought a car. My first car… I had been driving my car that my parents gave me in high school for 13 years! Long story short- I was a bit terrified. I called my Mother, Father and Grandpa for advice… I got a few good tips, but mostly just support and encouragement.

    A small thing to fret about, but I was more nervous than the day I married my husband! ;)

  • http://wwww.minecraftchannel.net/ Minecraft

    I totally agree with what is given, empathy is not always true we have been. It’s really valuable and meaningful than one might think as well though it does not need to be said and the attitude shown by your people.

  • Mermaid

    Worse is when you act on the advice – every time I have regretted taking advice and acting on it – every single time !
    So yeah James – there is nothing another can say . We are all here to grow and learn love . No advice is really necessary,
    Love and compassion. ?
    Kindness and generosity ?
    Oh yeah in spades !

  • David Goettsch

    This is a really important lesson James, especially for men! We are always taught as males that we always need to fix things and provide advice. It’s amazing how much just being there and empathizing can make all of the difference. Awesome article, thanks for sharing!

    Dave@personalgrowthproject

  • http://nicolewolf.com/ Nicole Wolf

    Thanks! I needed to read this before a difficult exchange I had with my mother yesterday. But this should help me going forward.

    Funny thing the roles were reversed. I was trying to offer advice to her when what she really needed was empathy. It’s usually the other way around with us. I should of known better because I hate when she gives me her two cents about my life. I’d rather her just be supportive and listen. So now I get it.

    Thanks again!

  • lv2terp

    Thank for a good reminder. and such a wonderful example! Great post! :)

  • RandyH

    Well said, James! With times changed as they have it is much safer I believe to settle for the empathy rather than the advice from grandparents anyway. You don’t chance hurt feelings when you don’t follow the advice! Just knowing they are there to listen in itself brings great peace of mind.