As a counsellor, people often come to me for advice. Essentially, they have identified something as not working in their life, or have encountered a situation that is overwhelming and are looking for a way to make things better. Are counsellors supposed to give advice? Yes and no. In a phrase, it’s complicated.
I ask people about what has been helpful in the past, what they are willing to try, and any thoughts they have about what they think might be helpful. I then fill in any information gaps I see with information I have about what research or experience has shown as ways to manage things like anxiety, sleep issues, communication issues, parenting challenges, depression or other situations. If there are no clear tools for the situation, I might explore other perspectives on a problem with a person, reframing it from various viewpoints, or share things that stood out to me about what they had described.
I do not, however, make decisions for people.
I often talk about decision making tools and work with someone on all that might need to be considered in a decision, but I do not make decisions. This can be frustrating for people who want someone to just tell them what to do. “Should I leave my job?” or “Is my marriage over?” But I won’t do it. I also work very hard to maintain the stance that each person knows their own self and situation best, and, as long as no one is at risk of being harmed, there is no one “right” decision. There are only decisions which may help or hinder a persons’ journey towards their goals and that is in keeping with their values. I will sometimes challenge people on decisions they are leaning towards which seem to clearly contradict their stated goals or values and encourage them to dig deeper about what might be influencing these choices.
That being said, I do, obviously have my own values and beliefs and I can’t pretend that I don’t.
No one is inherently, unbiased or objective, as a human being and pretending to be so risks my unconsciously trying to push an individual towards my preferred outcome
There are times when I am uncomfortable with another persons decision or wish they’d chosen something else but I am cautious about when or if to share these feelings. I also need to know where my own concerns are coming from and take responsibility for my own perceptive, focusing on sharing only what will be helpful to another persons’ process and supports their own perspectives and abilities.
When deciding what parts of my concerns, opinions, values or ethics to share, I need to consider power differentials between myself and the person who comes to me asking for input into their situation. I will not always share the same values as those I talk to and .no one is inherently, unbiased or objective, as a human being and pretending to be so risks my unconsciously trying to push an individual towards my preferred outcome.
The exception to this, is in matters of physical safety. If someone is at risk of harming themselves or others, I have an ethical, profession and legal duty to intervene, with or without the permission of the individual I”m working with. This is explained and agreed upon at the start of our first meeting.
Almost everyone has been in a situation where another person asks them for advice about a situation or shares an issue or problem with a friend, colleague or family member. This has likely been you at times.
Here are 8 things to consider when supporting someone in their decision making or problem solving process:
1. Power differentials
You may see yourself at the same level as another person, no matter what your relationship or position but the other person may not. If you are a parent or an older family member, you will likely be seen has having more authority than the person who comes to you. If you are a boss, or even a friend with a job which the other person may perceive as superior to their own due to pay, level or autonomy in your position or because of the nature of your job they may take your advice as more valid that other advice. In society, if you are a male, a member of the dominant ethnic group, and able bodied, others may see you as having more power than them and may treat your advice differently that their own ideas of that of others, for better or worse.
2. Your knowledge/expertise limitations
Friends or family may come to you about issues or situations that they believe fit roughly within your area of expertise, knowledge or experience. Be conscious and honest with yourself and others about where that knowledge, experience or expertise ends. For example, if you were a high school math teacher and a friend asked about the sleep problems of their 10 year old, this may be well outside of your knowledge base, despite the fact that you are a professional who works with kids. If you were to give an opinion, you risk giving information that may not be accurate and may be perceived as valid. Of course everyone is responsible to check their sources and be critical about where they get their information but those giving it also have a responsibility to have integrity in what they are offering.
3. Your values
Know what is important to you and why. When asked point blank, many of us can articulate clearly what our values are. What we may not have given much thought to is where they’ve come from. Usually people acquire their values from their families of origin, their ethnic and/or religious communities and society in general, usually based on their place in society (women, minority, able bodied, homosexual, etc.) Knowing where your values come from and considering who benefits from these values is an important aspect of determining which values are worth defending and which may need to be revisited. Understand that there are no “wrong” values and the decisions another person makes may appear to be contrary to your own values but it doesn’t make the decision, inherently wrong. Also, someone can choose a path different from your own and still hold the same values but are living a journey that looks different from your own. Be very cautious with judgements related to morality, values and opinions. If you can’t work past your judgements, may not be the person to support another in their process and ideally would communicate your own difficulty and suggest they find someone else. (Try to communicate this without implying judgement towards your differences).
4. Your perspective
Don’t pretend to be all-knowing or completely objective, to yourself or to others. No one can be. We all exist and come from specific contexts which influence the way we see the world and our opinions about it. Acknowledging our perspective is more likely to build trust than to alienate when it’s done with homily and lack of judgement. For example, I might say to a client who is struggling with rejection from their family, as a member of the LGBTQ2S community, that as a cis-gender, heterosexual woman, I can’t pretend to know how that would feel, but might imagine how it could feel based on my own experiences of rejection and this stories I’ve heard from others in similar situations. I might check if my assumptions are correct and ask for help in understanding their experience better.
5. Be cautious of Binaries
What I mean by ‘binaries’ is the idea that there is only one good or perfect solution or action and that all others are bad. These ideas are often tied to our opinion of what we believe to be the right thing to do. We need to be very cautious when communicating our own opinions and understand that there are many possible solutions which may, or may not, support the individuals’ goals, strengths, and hopes. Even saying this out loud can ease the pressure of making a perfect decision.
6. Don’t make decisions for others
This is true, even if someone is begging you to tell them what to do. Sometimes this questions is framed as “what would you do in this situation?” Don’t fall for this. You are not them, and what you would do in their situation may not be appropriate for them. You may pass on information about decision making and even support them through the process of gathering what is needed to make a decision but you do not want to be responsible for the decisions of other adults. This is obviously going to be different in the case of your own child.
Here is one decision making tool to use or share Ottawa decision making tool. *(Don’t worry it’s not actually coming from Canadian politicians;)
A friend, colleague or family member is not responsible to follow your advice, unless you are their parent or boss. It is important to consider, at the outset, how invested you are in a particular decision or action. If not following your advice will impact your relationship negatively, you should divulge this and recommend that they talk to someone else about their process. In this case, you are in a conflict of interest and are not objective enough to be supportive without judging the individual for their choices. You will do your relationship a favour by stepping aside or, at the very least, being 100% up front about your bias.
CAUTION Do not use your honestly about your bias as a way to influence the other person’s but be sure to express that you are expressing this in order to make the other person aware that you have limitations in your ability to be wholly supportive of the other person’s process, as a result.
8. Safety issues
If someone is at risk of being harmed in some way, it is time to get more help. You may need to enlist others, even professionals, or emergency responders. At these times, if the individuals is unwilling or unable to keep themselves or others safe, you will need to disregard confidentiality and sometimes, even the will of the other person when calling for assistance. This is a very difficult thing to do as we want to maintain respectful relationships. This should never be over-used and should feel conflicting. The conflictual feelings serve to remind us that this is a very serious decision that requires careful consideration. In situations where an individual is talking about harming themselves or others or ending their life or putting another individual, particularly a child or other vulnerable person in a risky situation, needs to be addressed. Sometimes it needs to happen immediately. If someone is in imminent danger or your believe they could be in imminent danger, call 911. If you are ever unsure, call your local crisis line. In Manitoba, this is Manitoba Crisis Lines. You can stay anonymous and get professional guidance about the situation.
Supporting others in hard times, listening, talking and processing difficult decisions is an important role. This is part of being a good friend, supportive family or community member or colleague. There is not one perfect way to be supportive and we will all at times, say or do things that others don’t find helpful. This is okay and this is human. But we can learn to get better at this job. It is not only a job for professionals. We need each other. So let’s keep on supporting each other and learning better ways of doing so.
For more on supporting others, check out