Advice requires two participants. One must offer it; and another must receive it. If it is offered without first having been solicited, it generates resentment, however small and incremental. And if it is requested, the counselor must yet take care not to overstep his boundaries, for fear of providing insight that is too pungent.
So advice is problematic both in origin and in delivery.
Francis Bacon, in his essay On Counsel, identified three “inconveniences” in the asking of advice. They are:
1. That the person asking for advice may see his secrets uncomfortably revealed.
2. That the person asking for advice may perceive that his authority or status is somehow lowered.
3. That the person asking for advice may receive bad guidance, which may be more in the interest of the person offering the advice than in the person receiving it.
From my own experience in providing guidance and advice to people in distress, I can say that these hazards are very real. The first two numbered items above are another way of saying that the person seeking advice may feel a sense of shame, or a loss of dignity, in asking for help from another.
In my experience, men seem more susceptible to this problem than women. Men, especially elderly men, do not like to ask for help, even when they are in dire need. There seems to be some misplaced sense of pride that springs into action, like a watchful sentinel guarding an inner sanctum, which prevents them from permitting the messenger of advice to enter.
A misplaced sense of pride is the downfall of many men. For it obscures the judgment, and blinds a man from taking positive action at the early stages of a crisis, and by delay, so harmfully narrows the range of constructive solutions. Men are in the habit of shouldering many burdens, and may find it difficult to drop their bags of bricks and allow themselves to be helped. For as the statesman Richelieu once observed, a key virtue in any sovereign is the capacity to allow himself to be advised by his ministers.
Pride, in this situation, is an enemy, rather than a friend.
Women, on the other hand, seem better able to focus on solving the problem at hand, without being bothered by wounded pride or status. These are generalizations, of course, but ones based on personal observation.
The third point noted above is a common fear among those seeking guidance, but I have found that it is a hurdle that is easily overcome. Trust either exists, or it does not. The asking for guidance does not even take place unless the bonds of trust and respect already exist.
Bacon overlooked the fact, however, that there are hazards in advice-giving not only for the recipient, but also for the giver. The dangers of advice-giving for the giver are these:
1. The advice-giver will be blamed if things do not unfold as the advice-seeker plans.
2. The advice will be distorted by the recipient in comprehension and in execution.
3. Some advice-seekers resent having to ask for advice, seeing a request for help as some sort of sign of weakness.
The first of these drawbacks is the most powerful of the three. Human nature is such that it often confuses aspirations with assurances; and unless the advice-giver successfully manages the expectations of his client, he may find himself the focus of ire when things do not turn out as the advice-seeker expected.
The second of these drawbacks is not as powerful as the first, but still can be a problem. Advice-seekers like to cherry-pick the shiny fruit from the basket of advice, and discard that which does not comport with their comfortable delusions.
And finally, as is noted in the third point, people often do not like to be seen in a vulnerable state, and may secretly resent their dependence on another for guidance. Need and gratitude are not always in accord with each other.
If I could have my way, I would wish for this as the best piece of equipment for the aspirant advice-giver: the Cap of Hades.
What is this? In classical mythology, the Cap of Hades (called in the Renaissance the “Helmet of Pluto”) conferred invisibility on its wearer. It was given by the Cyclops to Hades, the god of the underworld, during the war between the gods and the Titans.
The possessor of such a fantastic article could then give his advice, don his cap, and then walk away from his solicitor, safely cloaked in a mantle of invisibility.
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