Paddy usually arrives at the coffee shop well before I do, so I was surprised when he was a bit late arriving.
“What’s up?” I asked him after he picked up his latte, “I was getting worried.”
“Well,” he said, “my grandson stayed over last night and he asked me for some advice on how to handle a situation at school. We talked a little longer than I expected and I didn’t want to cut him short.”
“Good decision,” I told him. “Before you know it you’ll be wishing you had opportunities to spend time with him. Were you able to help him?”
“Oh, yeah,” Paddy answered, “it wasn’t a big deal; just deciding which after-hours club to join when the new term starts. And he had it pretty well figured out on his own. I think he just wanted affirmation.”
“That’s often the case when people ask for advice,” I observed.
“But,” Paddy went on, “it did get me thinking generally about giving advice, and I decided I wanted to talk to you about it. You pretty well made your living giving people advice didn’t you?”
“I suppose you could put it that way,” I tentatively agreed, “but there’s a big difference between giving professional advice and advising family and friends.”
“It’s the personal scenarios that I want to hear your views on,” Paddy elaborated. “And knowing you, you probably have a list of rules to follow.”
“I do have some rules,” I admitted.
“What’s the most important one?” he asked.
“That’s easy,” I said before pausing for a sip of coffee. “Always remember the four times when you should never give personal advice to anyone.”
“Which are…..” Paddy urged during the pause.
“When the other person is tired; when the other person is angry; when the other person has just made a mistake; or when you fall into one of those categories,” I enumerated.
“Makes sense,” Paddy acknowledged, “people having a really bad day probably don’t want a lot of advice, nor would they be in the mood to give it.”
“Great way to put it,” I said.
“What’s next?” he inquired.
“When approached for advice, ask questions. People rarely tell you the whole story right away, and if you don’t fully understand the problem you probably can’t give sound advice,” I told him. “And don’t hesitate to ask follow-up questions if you’re not getting clear answers.”
“What,” he asked, “if I know what I would do but I’m not sure it would be the right thing for the other person to do?”
“Tell them that,” I said. “Good advice doesn’t come in one-size-fits-all. And just because you might be seen to be qualified to give the advice sought doesn’t mean you automatically know what’s best in every situation; or, for that matter, what’s best for the other person in the particular situation.”
“What if, even after asking all the appropriate questions, I simply don’t feel comfortable giving any advice at all?” was Paddy’s next query.
“Apologize,” I responded, “and explain that you don’t feel qualified to give advice in the particular situation. We should never make choices for other people that aren’t ours to make. But if you know someone who would probably be able to help, suggest that the person looking for advice might want to approach him or her; and offer to make an introduction.”
“Anything else?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, “and we talked about it earlier when you mentioned that you thought your grandson had it all figured out anyway. Although people do ask for advice when they’re not sure what to do, they often just want to talk. It’s important to recognize the difference.”
“What if the difference isn’t obvious?” Paddy asked as he got up and shrugged into his jacket.
“It usually is,” I told him, “but if it isn’t, then asking the questions I referred to earlier becomes critical. Remember, too, that when giving advice, empathy is better than sympathy.”
“Any rules for asking for advice,” Paddy queried as he zipped up his coat.
“The main one,” I answered, “is never take carpentry advice from a guy with only three fingers.”
He stared at me for a moment and then turned and headed for the door without saying a word.
Assuming I’d hit a nerve, and curious about exactly what nerve I’d hit, I made a mental note to carefully examine Paddy’s fingers the next time we meet.