People don’t really want advice, even if they ask you for it.

When someone comes to me to share his or her problem, I’ve learned that the best thing to do while they drone on and on is simply to nod occasionally while making the noises that most people associate with sympathy. The groan of boredom can often be mistaken by such people as an expression of concern.

But no matter what they are telling me, I try very hard not to offer a solution. Offering a solution to someone with a problem is like trying to teach a pig to sing. All it does is annoy the pig. It’ll never learn to sing. I’ve had people ask me what they should do after they’ve told me what their plans are. For instance, someone comes to me complaining of headaches. I suggest, “if you just stop hitting yourself in the head with the hammer the headaches will go away, though you might want to visit a doctor, just in case.” They simply set my words aside and reaffirm their original plan: “I think I’ll put bubble wrap around my head to cushion the blows.”

Most problems are the result of the conflict that the person talking to me is having with some other person or persons that are not talking to me at the moment. I’ve learned that although their feelings about their situation and their perception of that situation are being presented to me accurately as far as they see it, the underlying reality is invariably somewhat different. Those situation comedies where one the characters tells a story to their friends about what another character does, only to have that character object and tell the same story but from their different point of view. Without fail, after the two characters tell the story, there is a recounting of the events as they actually happened. And the actual events only marginally resembles the tale as told by the first two. It seems to me that at least fifty percent of the conflicts that people have are merely the consequence of miscommunication and misunderstanding. But nearly a hundred percent of the time it is impossible to convince them of that.

One of my daughters will come to me and inform me about the misdeeds of her sister: “She called me a doufus!”


“Because she’s mean.”

“You weren’t doing anything?”

“I was just sitting there at my computer.”

I call in the other sister.

“Did you call your sister a doufus?”

“Of course not. But she was spitting sunflower seeds at me and singing off key while she watched a You Tube video.”

And so it goes. They have conflicts with their schoolmates.

“My friend hates me.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I was walking through the hall today and waved at her but she ignored me, like I wasn’t even there.”

“Do you suppose she just might not have seen you?”

“No. She was talking to a boy and she just snubbed me because she’s embarrassed to have me as a friend.”

John Adams, the second president of the United States, has been described as somewhat melancholy and pessimistic. One day he was walking down the street and a friend greeted him in passing, “Good to see you.” Adams spent the rest of the day concerned. “I wonder what he meant by that?”

The story is told about the French emperor Napoleon, that one day he received news that one of his generals had unexpectedly and inexplicably lost an important battle. One of Napoleon’s aids reacted by calling the losing general a traitor and suggesting that he had betrayed them all.

Napoleon shook his head. “Never attribute to malice what is more easily explained by stupidity and incompetence.”

For whatever reason, people have a tendency to always interpret the behavior of those around them—especially their friends and family—in the worst possible way. Rather than assume the best, they assume the worst. They are quick to believe malevolent intent rather than think to themselves that they might have misunderstood. If it weren’t for miscommunication and misinterpretation in interpersonal relationships, there’d hardly be any problems at all.

Generally speaking, when someone comes to me for counseling, they really aren’t wanting to be counseled. Instead, they are wanting to have their life style choice blessed by someone that they perceive to be an authority figure: “I’ve been robbing banks now for nearly three years and sometimes I feel bad about it, but I really need the money. What do you think I should do?”

Such a person does not want the truth. Instead, they want me to say, “Well, God normally frowns on stealing, but you’re one of those special cases where it is okay. There’s no reason for you to feel bad at all. Your need makes your behavior both justifiable and necessary.”

Of course, there is an advantage sometimes in giving advice, even when the person you’re talking to doesn’t want it. If you make him or her angry, there’s always the chance that they won’t ever bother you again. Unfortunately, in my experience, they never stay angry for very long and I wind up having to listen to their troubles all over again, usually within a matter of weeks. And sadly, it is usually the same problem over and over: “The bubble wrap hasn’t made the headaches go away. What do you think?”

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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