The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise.
– Proverbs 15:31
The process of admitting fault and initiating change is a difficult one. It is a journey that, in my experience, starts with attempts at self-justification, involves plenty of internal bludgeoning by the Holy Spirit, and results in the gain of a small measure of healthy humility. The fact is, not many people enjoy being incorrect.
Most people react badly, nearly every time, to negative criticism. One’s response to correction is often immediate defensiveness. The attitude in which correction is administered, then, does direct the journey to change. While the communication of truth and the value of correction should never give way, the delivery of that truth and correction is oftentimes just as important if we truly intend to change a brother or sister in Christ.
First, we must examine our motivations for giving advice. We do not give advice, of course, unless we know there is a good chance we are correct about the advice we’re contributing. However, our motivation in giving advice cannot be solely to be right. Many times, there is a theme woven into the advice we give, an attitude that says, “I told you so!” Though humility is often a by-product of correction and change, it is not our primary goal to humble the other person.
Second, though it may not be our goal, correction does produce humility and we must remember to be humble in offering advice as well. Giving advice doesn’t have to be confrontational or argumentative. I find I have adopted an attitude about giving advice that says, “The best I can do is state my advice. I don’t control the other person’s reaction to it. I will say what needs to be said, and if it is not accepted, it’s probably a lack of humility. He knows he is wrong, he just has yet to acknowledge it.” Is my motivation with that attitude, then, really to see a change in my brother or sister’s life? Or has it been merely to display my own superior knowledge? It has been my experience that those genuinely knowledgeable people that have given me good advice have also been the least likely to be humble in their delivery of it. When we arrive at the need to administer correction, it is almost always the result of a conviction we have gained by experience, whether they are our own or another’s’. Therefore, many times we offer good advice by humbling ourselves first, sharing raw experiences, and recalling processes of correction we ourselves have endured in the past. We are not handing down advice as if we exist on a superior plane of intelligence; we accept that both parties have wisdom to impart, and we engage in an understanding exchange of insight, both taking and giving.
Third, correction out of deep caring is best offered in conjunction with encouragement. For example, in working with children at my church, I have gained an ability to phrase correction positively. To redirect a child drawing on the table, I do not say, “Don’t draw on the table!” Instead, I suggest, “We draw on paper here, so let me get you some! That way you can take your hard work home to keep.” Though this may seem elementary–and indeed it quite literally is—this example illustrates what it looks like to bookend criticism with positivity. To phrase advice positively and to explain why the advice is beneficial to the hearer is to include application with our correction. Encouragement is important because it acknowledges the need for repair but also occasion to compliment.
Lastly, and most importantly, it is imperative to assess one’s audience prior to offering advice. Good, quality, and necessary advice can be and is often delivered poorly. Certain personality types are automatically inclined to give advice in a certain manner regardless of the situation. However, in offering advice, solicited or unsolicited, it is extremely important to understand who you are giving advice to. We may assume that because our advice has been asked for, we are automatically granted permission to deliver advice in whatever manner we choose. I disagree. Regardless of the situation, evaluating one’s audience is still required. Since our goal in giving advice is to make a positive change, methods will vary according to recipient, not according to situation or deliverer. To encourage change, some might need blunt, unapologetic truth. However, others might need honesty clothed in gentleness. Neither method should alter or water down the truth in any way; the only dependent variable is the delivery.
Our motivation in giving advice is to better the character and resulting path of a brother or sister. Is it not best to offer that advice in a way that will encourage the human ego to take it? It is not always solely the advice that changes someone’s character, life, or path, but also the way in which that advice is offered. As those giving advice, it is our responsibility not to dish out what may be felt as half-accusations. Instead, we encourage by coming alongside for the purpose of helping. When we tailor the delivery of our advice according to our sincere assessment of the other person, we increase the chances of our brother or sister returning home to actually consider the words we’ve spoken. By doing this we also increase the chances of accomplishing what should be our goal: a positive change, to be iron sharpening iron.
This is why it is “the art of offering advice,” and not “the practice of forcing guidance” or “the method of administering a letdown.” It is an art because it is done creatively, gently, and with careful skill. It is the expression of an inward conviction with the intent to change others for the better, in conjunction with the sanctification process, and for mutual encouragement. It is an offering because when one offers something, they give the other person a choice between taking it and refusing it. To offer something is not to say, “You had better take it because it is right!” It is not to prove a point, but instead to make a suggestion out of kindness and concern.
Our advice is often best given after having examined and humbled ourselves, in conjunction with encouragement, and in consideration of our audience. One’s knowledge is indeed a waste if it is not shared. But it has not, in reality, been shared if it has been offered without regard to whether the other person will be inclined to accept it. “Share” implies both giving and receiving. There will, of course, always be well-offered advice that is not taken. It is correct to assume that we cannot control whether or not someone accepts our advice; however, it is incorrect to excuse ourselves from the responsibility of delivering our advice sensitively. Advice is often given, but it is not always offered, and if we do not take our audience into consideration, it cannot be shared.