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Advice-giving can be a dangerous business

If you propose to speak, always ask yourself:
Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?
— Buddha
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A friend used to tease that my instincts as an editor must make life challenging for me because I see the errors or problems in so many situations. While that’s not an utterly inaccurate assessment, I prefer to view it as often seeing ways to improve things.

However, since I’m neither omniscient nor infallible, my way to improve things is usually just my opinion and/or suggestion. Unless, of course, it is a case of noticing something that is just flat-out incorrect.

Such is the situation with the current Infinity commercial, in which the announcer says, “If everyone accepted the status quo, the world would still be flat.” Actually, no. The world was never flat, so it could not still be flat. Even following the analogy they seemed to be attempting to its logical conclusion, chances are, by this date in 2012, someone other than Aristotle (384-322 BC; argued in his writings that the earth was spherical) or Columbus (1451-1506; reached India by sailing west from Spain because he knew the planet was round) would have long since proven the orbed nature of the earth.

Other frequent observations I make include people’s self-talk. Things like, “I’m always so broke,” or “You just watch. I’m sure I’m going to get fired.” This also goes for our blogs, Facebook posts, and the ways we interact with people. Since we empower the thoughts we give the most attention, why do we so often focus on the things we don’t want? Want to get in shape, publish your book, or find true love? It’s probably not going to happen if you focus on how fat you are, how much you don’t know about publishing, or how all the guys out there are jerks. (For more on this, I recommend two excellent books: Mike Dooley’s Infinite Possibilities and Sandra Anne Taylor’s Secrets of Attraction.)

Perhaps the most obvious observation comes with books: I can tell within a paragraph or two whether or not an author has had his or her work professionally edited. The worst thing is when the author is someone I know, and the subject matter is good but the book itself is terrible because they didn’t bother to hire an editor.

My challenge is: What, if anything, should I do about it?

Think about a little thing like having a grain of pepper stuck in your teeth or forgetting to zip your fly. Would you prefer to have someone tell you, or would your pride make that kind of comment too embarrassing to hear? Then amplify that a hundred-fold. Having someone tell you, “Your book really isn’t very good” is probably a lot like hearing “Your baby is ugly,” except in the case of the book, things can be done to improve it.

Quite a number of years ago, I was in a lousy relationship and bought a self-help program called Light His Fire, by Ellen Kreidman. She offered a money-back guarantee if the program didn’t help salvage your relationship, no matter how bad it was. Though my relationship turned out to be unsalvageable, I didn’t request a refund because I learned so many other important things from her program. One of those was a lesson that applies to this topic of advice. Kreidman’s suggestion: Unless someone specifically asks your opinion or advice, keep your mouth shut. And by and large, I think she is correct. We don’t do people favors by going around offering unsolicited advice or making them wrong. When they want your advice, Kreidman suggests, they will ask for it.

Hmmm… That still doesn’t really address my challenge. If I hear or see something I know could be vastly improved, what, if anything, should I do about it? Should I go my merry way, knowing a blogger is self-sabotaging her success or that an author is unlikely to find the publisher they’re seeking, given the current state of their book?

One suggestion from coaching circles is to ask, “Are you open to some feedback?” I think this works in certain situations — but it also can create an awkward impasse. What if the person really isn’t open to feedback but feels pressured to say they are? And what is the motivation behind my need to give the feedback in the first place? Is it really altruistic, or is it in some way intended to build myself up? In my situation as an editor, I would never want the person to think I’m ginning for business by insulting them, which is why I will probably never tell someone who doesn’t ask that their book really needs editing.

I’d love to hear your opinions on this! Have you ever offered unsolicited advice? Do you appreciate when others tell you, “You know what you should do…”? Would you want someone who had an expert opinion to give it to you if you didn’t ask for it? Tell us what you think in the comment section below…

Laura

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