Giving advice is one of the ways in which we feel we are being most helpful, when listening to someone’s problems. It feels like a concrete offering, a real thing we are giving, and when we can’t think of a great idea, we think we have failed our friend, and apologise. And yet who takes up unsolicited advice? There’s a great story (which I can’t verify at the moment) of the C19th author Wilkie Collins, stuck for a name for his new novel, complaining about it to his friend Charles Dickens who promptly came up with a list of twenty or so. Collins didn’t take up any of his friend’s suggestions, and eventually came up with his own.
How much worse it can be if you never get a chance to think through things yourself. Imagine a person learning to pilot a plane, their own little individual aircraft of life. They’re sitting at the controls, the engine is running, they’re nervous, looking at the instruments and assimilating lots of information. The trainer comes in behind them and starts to insist: ‘you want to get airborne quickly? I can tell you exactly what you need to do, just follow my instructions’. The tentative pilot panics, thinking ‘I’m not doing well enough, learning fast enough, they must think I’m not going to choose well, I might crash!’ If they follow the instructions it might be in blind fear that they must do something, but like flying the plane with a blindfold on. They will never learn to read the instruments for themselves, know how to get airborne, respond subtly to the weather and conditions. If they do get airborne they won’t know how they did it. And they may not know where to go from there. The other alternative is to abandon the attempt to take off, paralysed by fear or indecision. This is what can happen if other people try to do your thinking for you, often from the best of intentions and care. What matters is that you get there yourself, learning to read your own instruments of intuition, experience, character and temperament, trusting your own judgement.
Three years ago I stumbled across the Thinking Environment, developed by Nancy Kline and described by her quite simply as a method designed to help people think for themselves. At its core is the positive philosphical choice that humans are intelligent, creative, care for others and can solve most of their problems themselves. You get the chance to think, aloud, to someone who is only listening to ignite your thoughts, not just to reply, and trusts that you will find your way. It was incredibly heartening to me, and has helped me to build my own trust in myself. Without that, I feel like I’m flying blind.