Brand building through storytelling

A word of advice

At the bottom of my purse lies a battered leather case containing a fistful of cards from people with corner-office titles: Executive Producer of This, Senior Vice-President of That, Grand Poo-Bah of Whatever. My favourite card puts them all to shame. It belongs to a much older woman who announces her well-earned role in life with one authoritative word: “Advice.”

Now, here’s a woman who has truly arrived. Any number of hotshots can write a strategic plan, but how many people can you turn to when you’re caught in the middle of a family feud or your child’s principal calls about another disgrace on the playground?

I’d like to think I’ve found my next calling. A couple of decades from now, when no one is plying me with business cards, I hope to be known for the bang-on wisdom of my advice.

There’s a hailstorm of bad advice out there. Got a health problem? Someone’s bound to extol a complicated diet that will cure you for good, add years to your life and banish extra pounds for good measure. Still single and regretting it? You just haven’t discovered the best-selling love guru of the moment. New baby? Brace yourself. Everyone you know—and a shocking number of mouthy strangers—will be right there goading you to be their notion of a better mother.

I’ve given some appalling advice in my time. Once I had a friend who loved to complain about her overbearing husband. I figured I knew just what she should do and told her so in no uncertain terms: “Leave him!” I didn’t yet know that some couples bond through bickering. Looking back, I see the zest in her anger, the pride in her sassy retorts to Mr. Wrong. If I could relive my conversations with my friend, I’d want to explore these things. But I won’t get the chance. She dropped me. I doubt if she ever dropped her husband.

Is anything more treacherous than offering advice? You can be absolutely right and still mess up big-time. Let’s face it, people don’t quit smoking or stand up to domineering bosses because someone else says they should. Chances are, the harder you press, the more they’ll resist. And here’s another slippery slope: the friend who asks for your “honest opinion” can still take offence at your answer, especially if that dress she’s set her heart on really does look too tight around the middle.

I’ve heard it said that there’s one right way to give advice: find out what someone wants to do and blithely cheer her on. But I’m not that cynical. I’ve noticed a defining feature of advice that misfires: it’s about the self-proclaimed authority of the giver, not the real needs of the recipient. It declares fixed views about the natural order of things and admits no alternatives. When advice hits home, it speaks directly to the conflicted heart of the listener and challenges her to find a resolution.

A friend of mine, mourning yet another failed romance, turned to her sister for advice. “What’s wrong with these guys? Why do they keep doing this to me?” she cried. Her sister pondered this, then turned it around. “Well,” she answered, “you’re the common denominator.” At first my friend was incensed at her sister’s frankness, but then she took a harder look at the victim role she’d been playing. Years later, she says her sister’s words changed her life.

I once gave a gifted young woman some advice about her career. Other people, including her parents, had taken the opposite position, and she was feeling so torn torn that she asked me, “If I don’t take your advice, will you think less of me?” I knew I would not and said so. But I remembered similar situations when I’d been more judgmental. In the end, she did as I suggested and I took her question to heart. It’s the best insight anyone has ever shared with me on the delicate art of advice.

Click here to read about the best advice I ever received.

First published in slightly different form as a Chatelaine editorial, October 2001. Copyright Rogers Media Publishing.

Posted by Rona

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