Friday Forum: On Providing Counsel
Giving good counsel is hard work. Interpreting counsel is also much harder. Human beings need the counsel of others; providing support, insight and challenges to one another is one of the ways we exercise our humanity.
But it does not mean that we are any good at it. So much of the time, we are really rather wretched about offering sensitive, edifying and helpful counsel. We regularly let judgment masquerade as counsel, with little regard for the presenting question or for the person struggling with the questions.
We are not very good at empathy, particularly when we cannot relate to the issues in the slightest bit. My own failures at exercising empathy have led me to consider “the shoe on the other foot” test as a way to size my counsel before I offer it.
It is much easier to consider how someone might respond to counsel if I consider how the same piece of counsel really affects me. For instance, a lot of Christians provide counsel restricted to “search the Scriptures” as a response to challenging issues. This counsel implies a couple of things: 1) the person seeking counsel is not looking in the Scriptures and 2) the Scriptures offer one unified path about how to respond to this particular challenging issue. Also this counsel overlooks the question that a lot of the Holy Scriptures may be relevant to the issue at hand. Additionally, this counsel excuses people of their responsibilities of engaged compassion. It is much easier to excuse oneself of obligations, leave another human person wallowing, and carry on knowing that your responsibility is complete.
No, it is much harder when we confront our tendencies to recite platitudes instead of offering real help and support. Even if the platitude is the “right” thing to say, offering it as a stand-alone statement does not actually pass the shoe-on-the-other-foot test. Someone tells you to “search the Scriptures.” Actually, you have been keeping to diligent patterns of searching. Perhaps it is even something that you have read recently that is causing you to look for counsel because the words on the page have exposed something in your own life that needs to change. Perhaps you are wrestling with a large issue that seems to be incredibly multi-faceted that you do not know how to respond; the more you search, the more confused you become.
We definitely have greater commonality as human persons than we assume, even from the get-go. Yet we will often find fault and level counsel as a mandate when people are slightly different from us. We make assumptions, which build into stereotypes, that color our counsel before we even meet someone asking a question. And really, if we were to take even an instant to consider how we might respond to a slightly modified version of our counsel that would fit our own situation, then we would realize that there’s no way anyone could enact what we are saying. The essence of the shoe-on-the-other-foot test is the question “Could the person offering the counsel abide in the restrictions posed by it?”