Advice Giving Tips

NB: This document is authored & developed by 'nb-ben'

Abstract

This document aims to provide guidelines for people who wish to help others in the #peoplesproblems channel on FreeNode. Its purpose is to cover common caveats when discussing others about their problems, and to empower you to assist them in the most meaningful and straightforward way.

Opening notes

First and foremost, I would like to thank you for your interest to help others in their worst of times. This is one of the kindest and selfless things that you can do. Helping others in need is very rewarding.

Apart from the rewarding experience, as you help more people, your ability to understand and peer into other’s emotions will develop greatly. This is one of the most pleasurable and useful traits that can greatly affect your own life for the better.

To understand the psychological terms used in this document, please refer to the following:

Cognitive bias - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias

Confirmation bias - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias

Projection - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_projection

Perspective - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perspective_(cognitive)

All advice is generally bad

When speaking to another person, we only get a small portion of the context, and this small amount of information is susceptible to the cognitive bias of the advice seeker. When we process it to understand the situation, we project our own cognitive bias into the mix as well.

Allow me to illustrate:

1. Let Ben (male) and Jordan (female) be an imaginary couple, where Ben and Jordan are in a romantic relationship;

2. Recently, Jordan found out that Ben is talking to other women online, although she discussed the issue with him many times;

3. Jordan decided not to bring it up this time, seeing as Ben does not respond to her requests to stop conversing online;

4. Jordan feels hurt, but accepts this trait in Ben, as she feels that this behavior will not change and does not want to lose him;

5. Jordan behaves a little colder to Ben in their day-to-day interactions due to her feelings;

6. Ben is confused as to why Jordan suddenly started acting cold to him, and projects his flirtatious behavior towards Jordan, suspecting that she is having an affair while he’s at work;

7. Ben seeks help online, and joins our chatroom.

A conversation could possibly come about this way:

Ben: Hello, my girlfriend suddenly started acting cold towards me about a month ago, and I suspect that she is having an affair while I am at work. She has a guy friend that she is very close to and talks to him a lot, and recently even more so. What can I do?

Advice_Giver: It does look like she is cheating. The exact same thing happened to me, my girlfriend just turned cold on me all of a sudden and started talking to her guy friend with whom she is now married. Dump her before wasting any more time.

This is clearly not meaningful advice, but the advice giver could not have any idea at all about the reality of things, and projects his own experiences into the mix. The end result is completely far from the truth, yet it appears to be holding good ground for both Ben and the advice giver due to Ben’s confirmation bias. In the following portion of the article, I will describe a better method to help others while avoiding these caveats.

Cognitive perspectives

In day-to-day experiences, when we are calm and content, our perspective tends to be broad, and we are able to reason about things with ease. Imagine that while you are driving your car, a truck is speeding towards you in a collision course. As it gets closer, your perspective narrows, and your choices will no longer include some things that you would have if you were calm. For instance, you will not be thinking about the best route of escape that is most efficient for you to get to work as you deal with the situation. In retrospective, when your perspective is broader, you may think back and realize that you had this option.

Or to illustrate another example, when you speak to a crowd you may feel anxious and articulate or move around less smoothly than you normally would. In retrospective, it would appear as though you were handling the situation poorly in comparison to your calm performance.

Those are extreme examples, however people who suffer from anxiety, depression, paranoia, and other chronic conditions have their perspective narrowed in much the same way. While a more subtle change in perspective than the illustrations above, they are far powerful and more harmful as these conditions are experienced over a longer period of time.

Breaking out from a narrow perspective

In order to widen a person’s perspective, we could divert their attention towards things that they have not previously thought about due to their mental constraints. Seeing as we don’t share the same mental constraints as they do, we have the opportunity to ask them questions that they did not ask themselves. Questions that appear natural for us to ask are often not obvious to others.

Allow me to illustrate, taking the previous example with Jordan and Ben. A conversation could have come about this way:

Ben: Hello, my girlfriend suddenly started acting cold towards me about a month ago, and I suspect that she is having an affair while I am at work. She has a guy friend that she is very close to and talks to him a lot, and recently even more so. What can I do?

Advice_Giver: Did anything change last month?

Ben: Not that I am aware of, no.

Advice_Giver: What do you think would make her cheat on you this way?

Ben: I’m not sure. We had a rough year, she would always feel insecure about our relationship and try to stop me from talking to other female friends that I have.

Advice_Giver: Do you think that this might have anything to do with it?

Ben: I don’t know, I guess…

Advice_Giver: Have you asked her?

Ben: No, not yet.

Advice_Giver: Do you think that perhaps talking to her about it may shed more light on the matter?

Ben: I guess I should talk to her. Thank you Advice_Giver.

This form of advice puts Ben in the right direction, as the advice giver is tunneling his reasoning through Ben rather than injecting uninformed conclusions.

Parting notes

In conclusion, it’s best to stay out from distributing your own conclusions based on the limited amount of information that is provided, but rather, try to help the other person reason about the matter on their own, as they have the entire context, which you are missing. Doing bad is worse than not doing good, simply giving someone attention when they are sad is good already.

Your mental health is as important as anyone else’s, and it could be very straining to go through other people’s problems. Don’t exhaust yourself :)

Criticism and comments about the contents of this article are most welcome, you may contact nb-ben in the chatroom.

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