I was once giving a young man a bit of advice, something I didn’t realize I was doing until he suddenly held up his hand. “No, see I don’t want your advice; all I want from you is your encouragement and support.”
It’s a remark I’ve never forgotten but what did it really mean? Do people really NOT want a word of counsel, preferring instead to blunder blindly forward on their own? And if they won’t take advice from someone they know, will they take it from someone they’ve never met?
Well, if they’re smart they will, and if that someone is Jeanne Phillips also known as Abigail Van Buren, who now writes the feature her mother Pauline first brought to the world in 1956. Now, as then, ‘Abby’’ gives it to you straight. Take this recent response to a woman vexed with her husband who thinks it’s fine to read over his wife’s shoulder.
“I have tried explaining that I think it’s rude, but he says I’m rude for asking him not to do it. He thinks I have something to hide if I tell him to stop. What say you?” Abby’s reply: “I say you married a man who is insecure and suspicious, and you have my sympathy.”
Or take this exchange, with a woman so desperate to maintain ties with a former boyfriend that she buys him a bottle of his favorite wine, even though “he is making no effort to hang out” even to accept the gift. “At what point do I put the bottle to better use and drink it myself?” she asks. Abby’s reply: “How about tonight?”
She’s equally frank with a man agonizing about his girlfriend who has three children from three different fathers and a male ‘friend’ who she has the children addressing as Daddy. “She says she loves me and wants us to be married, but I’m having a hard time accepting that all of these children’s fathers will be part of our life — as well as the ‘friend.’ Can a psychologist help me get past this?” Abby’s response: “I don’t know. But before you take this relationship further, you should definitely see one.”
Yes she says more in saying less.But what I ‘ve noticed is that sometimes saying nothing at all can also work pretty well in directing people toward good choices.
In my second year teaching, I was assigned Girls Room duty, which meant spending every lunch hour on a bench in a basement lavatory where one day a student from my sixth period class sat down beside me.
Her father had died the year before and she was just plain mad at the world. When she came to class at all she just sat scowling out the window. At quiz-time she would say she hadn’t done the reading and I should just give her the F.
Yet now here she was every day on my bench, where, as the months passed, she slowly began talking about things, including the extralegal bits of mischief she had cooked up the night before.
I just listened – until the day when she came to the end of this Daily Crime Report, paused, and blurted, “But I’m stopping all that now.”
“Why?” was all I could ask.
“Because I can tell that you think I should.”
She knew this not because I said so but because I didn’t and there was the revelation of a truth I have never forgotten: Namely that true attention makes a space in which the person speaking can truly hear and truly see himself – and then make a good decision on his own.