I once wrote a poem titled “Advice for Those Who Don’t Know How,” which was advice from a fire about how to become fire. Admittedly I can’t file that under the “Lily’s Real World Advice” tab but I think I can take that poem’s title and write a book filled with real actual advice that nobody would read because nobody ever listens to me or understands what I’m trying to say anyway. But for all that, I think I give pretty good advice. Whether or not someone accepts what I say is their prerogative, but I like to think that in real life and in dealing with other people I’m a good mixture of logic and emotional reasonableness, which is a good combination for troubleshooting and advice-giving.
And in my experience, most people are really bad at giving advice. Incapable of or unwilling to think outside of their own realm of experience and understanding into someone else’s, they spew meaningless axioms and empty pre-packaged condolences which, quite opposite of having the intended effect of cheering someone up, usually have the opposite of making them feel responsible for something they weren’t responsible for, or feeling worse than they were before they said anything, or feeling sorry they shared their story at all.
Particularly when it comes to giving emotional support, sometimes nothing needs to be said. No oh you deserve better’s or he’s such a tool’s. No you’ll find someone who’s good to you someday’s. These are all meaningless things to say.
Why? Because the person you’re comforting already knows that. They already know they don’t deserve to be treated poorly. They already know he’s not a great guy. That’s not why they told you what they told you.
They told you what they told you because they’re feeling horrible now and they need you as a friend to support them emotionally. That doesn’t mean telling them that they didn’t deserve to be treated like that and the guy that they sincerely, truly had feelings for is just a bad guy. By saying things like that, you can actually burden your friend with accusation: why did you have true feelings for a shithead like that? Why would you let yourself be treated that way? That’s what you’re saying when you say you don’t deserve to be treated like that and he’s a tool anyway. You don’t mean that, but that’s the message.
Trust your friend. You don’t need to point out “the lesson” in all of the mess. As time passes, your friend will figure out whatever they need to know. And if they don’t, they will the next time something happens. You’re not your friend’s parent. Parents are the ones who are supposed to make sense of the lessons in the bad things that happen for their children because children are experiencing things for the first time and their brains aren’t fully formed so they literally have no way of connecting all the dots. But don’t patronize your friend by saying pre-packaged things that you’ve heard before. There’s a time and a place for “you deserve better” and that’s pretty much only when your friend says to you “I don’t know if I deserve better.”
So then what can you say?
I’m sorry that happened to you. If you ever need to talk more about it, I’m here. And you know what? You’re going to be okay.
And then give them a big hug, and listen to whatever more they have to say, if anything. And give them space if they need it.
I forget the exact quote, but I recently read something that said something like this: as everyone’s inner writer begins to emerge, as is inevitable, listeners and our ability to listen will disappear.
I was horrified when I read this the first time. I read it again and again. And then I realized that it’s already happened and we’re already living in that world. We’re all making noise and creating output but how many of us are actually listening to what other people say? How many of us are actually thinking about our friend’s real situation, real emotions, and real needs before we respond? Isn’t it more like well, this is bad, and I know I need to say something in a bad situation, so well, here are these words that I think fit the bill?
I didn’t think about it in the term “listener” before I read this quote, but one of the qualities that really attracts me in a friend or a partner is that capacity to listen. To really hear me. To try to understand me. When I speak, be it with close friends, new friends, or whomever, I’ve usually flensed it down to what I really want to say. I sometimes think out loud, but I’m saying something. I’m not just making noise. So the people who tilt their head slightly and nod while I’m saying something, or who watch my face as they interpret what I mean, or who ask me questions about something I said earlier… all of my best friends are people like that and everyone I have a meaningful connection with is that way. I think everyone is capable of listening. We’re just so used to having the flip switched to output that we forget to switch it back. Or we’ve already been saturated with information throughout the day, so we don’t want to take in anymore.
Really listening to someone has become an effort for some reason. There’s a Charles Baxter essay about the listening habits of characters in contemporary literature compared to the classics or even modernists: before the contemporary period, characters always listened to each other and understood each other when they were speaking. If they didn’t understand, they asked for clarification. If they didn’t like something someone said, they challenged them. In contemporary literature there’s a sudden decline in understanding between characters, there’s a sudden increase of distractedness, of “what?”s and misconstruction of information.
Be a listener. Notice things. Let things matter. And treat your friends right when they need you. Don’t rely on stock phrases to provide comfort or advice or speak heedlessly when there’s no need.