Well Meant Advice: When to Listen, When to Ignore

A member of an online group I’m in recently shared this:

“Without doubt, the most common weakness of all human beings is the habit
of leaving their minds open to the negative influence of other people.” –

Napoleon Hill

While very true, this statement is also problematic for me.  It’s easy to interpret someone’s comments as negativity if they disagree with you.  Or conversely, negative comments can appear to be well meant advice.

How do you distinguish good advice from bad?

My inclination is toward the rational. (And yet I read and write romance — go figure.) I’ve read books and articles that recommend understanding and setting priorities, goals, and values in order to overcome procrastination and facilitate decision making.  I’ve even given talks on this subject.  But when push comes to shove, what are priorities, goals, and values except emotions dressed up in rational clothing?

So how in touch are you with your emotions?  Pretty much every decision we make, no matter how rational we think we’re being, has an emotional component. In fact without emotions, decision making is often impaired. Apparently reason without emotion is like a rider without his horse — he’s not going to get anywhere.

Still the horse needs the rider too.  Alone, emotions will urge us to take the course of least resistance, the advice that we like best, and that won’t always get us where we want to go. No Olympian enjoys all her workouts.

And when we’re given conflicting advice, or advice we don’t like?  What then?  Which chooses, horse or rider? Some consciousness researchers might argue there is no such thing as conscious choice. That the neural network that makes up our “self” processes input, and the result is a conditioned response that another part of our network labels a “decision.”  These researchers say there is no ghost in the machine, there’s only the machine.

This may be true, but the “ghost” is too useful a concept to discard.  Sifting through advice and making decisions may be difficult, but I’m not yet ready to throw out the idea of free will, and the choices and responsibilities that go with it.

So how does your “ghost rider” decide where to go?

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Well Meant Advice: When to Listen, When to Ignore

  1. Thought-provoking post! This is a topic I have struggled with quite a bit, not only as a writer, but in the area of life choices, too. Since I experienced professional, social and academic success in my younger days when I specifically did not listen to my parents or relatives advice, my neural net is (good or bad) conditioned to automatically follow my own advice and not much else. This has occasionally been a disadvantage to me. However, it also led me to enroll in some communication seminars in the early 90s, which provided me with some methodical and useful tools for separating “what is so?” from “what did I make it mean?” In the human brain those two things are intertwined like macrame (we are just meaning-making machines, really). And yet, they are two completely different items! One is non fiction (what’s so) and one is fiction (what did we make it mean?) Occasionally I learned, the meaning we assigned is at least helpful if not accurate. Most of the time though, not so much. We often take a fiction volume off the shelf in our own neural library and move it into the non fiction section. We then proceed to treat it like it’s true. This act of transferring or intertwining doesn’t actually make it true. Nevertheless, memes, among other portions of our psychology as humans, began as a survival mechanism and do have some unfortunate side effects for our development now that our survival challenges and our growth processes have shifted.

    That the neural network that makes up our “self” processes input, and the result is a conditioned response that another part of our network labels a “decision.”

    I would agree with the assertion they make, provinded that the person in question has had no training in how to monitor their thoughts, emotional triggers and to recognize which ones lead to which automatic behaviors. Which tape recording plays in my head when someone says, “x”? Which tape plays when “Y” happens? What do I automatically say, do, respond like, when those occur? Being able to notice that as it happens in daily life does not keep it from happening again because it doesn’t change my past conditioning, but the more I notice and observe my tape recordings, the more I develop muscle, so to speak, around choosing a reaction, behavior or even thought process, rather than letting it choose me. I’m not always successful. When under stress my ability to observe and choose before I act or speak is less effective. Still, I haven’t yet found a better way to police myself, so to speak. It’s certainly an ongoing struggle!

    I know there are times when I receive good advice and don’t follow it because of my experiences. I also know that I have ignored more bad, well-meaning advice than good. I think it’s constant growth challenge to recognize — using both reason and intuition — which advice to follow and which advice to think about yet not act upon.

  2. Benita

    Very thought provoking indeed. Roxy, you made me think even more.

    It is interesting to me how CERTAIN people always want to give me advice. I mention a situation and in response I get “Here is what you should do…”
    Now one is my dad, who is forever in the “let me help you” mode. Another is a female friend who is also frequently ASKS for advice (and listens enthusiastically, says that I have given her GREAT advice and that she will definitely follow it, and then 95% of the time goes on to do what she has been doing all along). And the last is my dear brother, who somehow feels like he is the expert on every area that has ever existed.

    And I find I have a very strong barrier against unsolicited advice. The majority of the time I feel capable of making my own decisions, thank you very much! I am happy to hear about others experiences, as long as it is offered in that way, just as I have shared my current situation with them.

    I don’t ask for advice often, but when I do, I take it seriously and don’t have much difficulty sifting through the information to see which might work for me in my circumstance.

    People often mistakenly believe that THEIR advice is GOOD advice because “it would work.” I’m a firm believer that one distinguishing characteristic between good and bad advice is whether or not the suggested action will fit into the life of the recipient. It might seem to you like “great advice” but may not be truly adoptable by the recipient for a myraid of reasons.

    • I’ve been guilty of offering unsolicited advice on occasion, usually to people who have a habit of revisiting the same issue over and over with no progress. (They wouldn’t be telling me this again if they didn’t want help, right?) It has taken me an embarrassingly long time to learn to stop.

      It seems to me there are relatively few people who are able to analyze their behavior and make significant changes to what they learned at their parents’ knees. Benita and Roxy are among the few who have done it successfully.

      • Benita and Frankie, your responses remind me, too, that the more you learn to be conscious of how your own thoughts and automatic responses work, the easier it is to understand how someone else might be approaching the act of giving you advice. As in Benita’s case, maybe you know a person seems always in a “let me solve your problems mode,” perhaps they are sincere in this, too…I notice a lot of men are in this mode because men fix things and want to be your hero… yet they may be the type of person to give advice in lieu of fixing their own life and troubles. My mom was one of those. We have all, it seems, experienced being asked for advice repeatedly by the same friend, who never actually follows it. I find that most people who ask for advice are in one of three camps: Camp 1 – Just want to complain; Camp 2 – Want someone else to tell them what to do; Camp 3 – Don’t really want to fix this problem, just want to “look” like they do and keep doing the same thing because it’s comfortable.

        It’s Camp 3 that is the most frustrating for friends or coworkers to help. They don’t want to make a decision for themselves, probably because being responsible… 100% responsible for your choices is daunting! It takes something, a commitment/acceptance/love of self to be totally responsible for your own life and choices. That’s probably outside the comfort zone of a lot of folks much of the time. But as Frankie points out, it’s possible to change your behavior, grow and learn. I think it says something GREAT about anyone who is willing to try and help a friend or coworker repeatedly. It means we’re optimists! My gosh, think of how many famous authors would never have been published if they had given up after the first or 2nd try!! Yikes! Human beings are worth as much as a book project (although books often are just like babies for us writers and just as important).

        Despite that, I agree there comes a point where you have to say, okay, I’m wasting my time because this person doesn’t really want my help, but you won’t always know that until after the 2nd time. Conversely, sometimes you get helpful advice from someone who has traditionally given you not so helpful advice. The thing about people is that if we can change our behavior and thoughts, so can our relatives and friends. It makes life more interesting to come at every encounter and conversation as if you are meeting that person for the first time, even if you’ve known them for years because you actually are meeting them for the first time — and they, you! You are the person you chose to be that day, and so are they. For both of you that might be very different than last week or last month. I’ve had some really neat conversations with old friends doing that. Human beings have amazing potential.

  3. Benita

    I think sometimes people keep repeating the same lament to you because they haven’t gotten the response they want…they haven’t felt “heard.” As an experiment, sometime try saying “This is clearly important to you, because you’ve brought it up before. And I’ve given you my opinion before. But somehow, I must be missing some part of the story, because the advice I gave you wasn’t something that fit with you. Tell me, from the advice I gave you before, what part of the situation am I just not understanding?”
    Now, if you do it in a snarky way, you’ll lose a friend. But if it comes from a genuine, sincere attempt to understand their perspective, you may be surprised what you will learn.

    • Good point! I think a lot of communication problems stem from the place of not feeling “heard” or understood.

    • This is very good advice 🙂 if a little “counselor-ish.” It would be nice if the person presenting their problem also gave the situation a little thought and presented the problem differently in order to elicit a different response, instead of continuing their litany unchanged. Assuming, of course, that they really want to improve their situation and not just receive commiseration.

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