The Best Advice a Therapist Could Get? Stop Giving Advice

female-with-hand-upI remember when I first started out as a therapist. I loved offering advice. I had such important, good advice to share.

Actually, I was full of advice long before I became a therapist. I had good ideas for just about everyone in every situation starting from a fairly young age.

At one point in college, I decided to try an experiment. Instead of being so free and honest with my advice, I’d wait until people asked me for it. Why should I make it easy for everyone?

Strangely enough, no one asked.

Perhaps that’s part of what initially led me to this profession. Imagine my surprise when, three weeks into my first internship, my boss very directly told me and the other two interns, “Your job this year is to learn to listen and to not help anyone.”

What?

I found that to be glib and annoying. I figured he just wanted to say something bold, shocking, something to make us think twice. I mean, my earliest exposure to therapy was Lucy in the comic strip Peanuts. There was an advice giver if ever there was one.

Well, my boss was right.

Advice giving as a therapist should be a rare thing. Here’s why.

  • The person in therapy is the expert. It’s not just a business strategy, as in “the customer is always right.” Part of going to therapy is learning to trust yourself again. Sure, there’s an outside person who can help you see “the forest for the trees,” but good therapy means guiding without dictating. Ultimately—and maybe this is scary to hear—you know yourself better than anyone else, and perhaps a major reason you’re in therapy is to discover more.
  • Empowerment. My wanting to give advice as a young therapist was more about me than the person in therapy. I feel like I need to be strongly on guard with respect to any kind of paternalism in my role. If I give you advice—even great, smart advice—I need to make sure I’m not taking away your growth in your own decision making. Sure, I can let you know if I think something is a really bad idea, but unless there’s a major safety issue, my main job is to guide your thinking (and feeling) through the situation. Someday, you’re probably going to not be in therapy. Am I preparing you for that?
  • You’re rarely satisfied with advice. I can’t really remember a time when I gave direct advice that was really all that helpful in the long run. It was either not taken—which is fine; that’s at the other person’s discretion—or it was given because we were both avoiding something else that was going on. Meaning: maybe I gave advice to alleviate the person’s anxiety about a decision. You get advice from family and friends. You get advice from blog posts, attorneys, and trusted advisers. You don’t come to therapy to get advice. In my early days of therapy it’s been interpreted as an intrusion, an “I know you better than you know you.”
  • It’s the relationship that heals. Ultimately, it’s your interaction with your therapist that provides the most healing and growth. While I might make some useful interpretations about a topic or uncover a long-hidden pattern, when asked what has been most helpful in my sessions (I think it’s important to regularly check in with a person about how we’re doing), most, children especially, say it’s that I listen and there is a space to just have feelings heard. People with anger management issues often get more out of working through their anger with me than they do from any step-by-step plans we formulate for time outside the office. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but we are relational people. It’s how we learn best.
  • The last thing you need is another person telling you what to do. Let’s be honest. Before you got to therapy, you probably had a slew of wonderful advice givers: your parents, your in-laws, your partner, your friends—heck, the guy at the table next to yours. If you want advice, there are cheaper ways of getting it than going to therapy.

None of this is to say I’m never concrete with people in the therapy room or that I never offer suggestions. I don’t think it’s all that helpful to hold back or to be deliberately vague. But in my years of doing this work, I’ve given advice less and less and people seem more satisfied.

Sometimes my lack of advice giving brings up some strong feelings. I think back to when I wanted someone to make a decision for me. When someone did, I missed an opportunity to be better prepared for next time.

It’s like your mother telling you to look up a word in the dictionary instead of simply telling you its meaning. I was always angry when she did that. I considered her to be manipulative, withholding, and smarmy.

But I know what “pompous” means.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, LCSW, therapist in Brooklyn, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jen

    Jen

    February 5th, 2015 at 10:15 AM

    Justin I’m a student 2 years into my masters program to become a therapist. I remember in the second week of ethics class my teacher, a therapist with 25 years of clinical experience, looked at the class and said “you don’t give advice in therapy.” I was really confused because I honestly had thought that was what therapy was–giving advice! I’ve learned in my program though about the role of empathy and the other tools that therapists have to offer people. Not advice though!

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    February 5th, 2015 at 10:50 AM

    Jen,
    I know, seems counterintuitive, right? Those of us who are “fixers” or “helpers” feel that we should be doing something all the time. I had another supervisor along the way who would say, “Don’t just do something, sit there!”
    Good luck with your program! Sounds like you’re getting some good training.
    Justin

  • Janey

    Janey

    February 5th, 2015 at 11:37 AM

    it does sound a little odd, that’s what I always thought that therapy was for anyway, to get good advice but I guess it actually goes much further than that.

  • Rebecca

    Rebecca

    February 5th, 2015 at 1:17 PM

    Thank you so much for this insight into you, because I think that there are a lot of people like me who hold you guys up as being infallible, but you know, you are human too and we all make mistakes from time to time. That says a lot about you that you are able to admit that there is always this tendency there, but that you realize now that this is not going to be in your patient’s best interest. I think that’s great!

  • Ker C.

    Ker C.

    February 5th, 2015 at 4:32 PM

    Twelve years into my therapist career, I have noticed myself giving advice more often lately. And feeling less satisfied with my work. It goes both ways, I think, that as therapists, we are not as engaged with our clients when we go into advice mode. I have been thinking about this lately, and appreciate the clarity of your post. Thank you!
    Ironically, it’s good advice. ;-)

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    February 6th, 2015 at 3:14 AM

    Janey–you’re not alone in thinking it’s odd and it can take some adjusting to if you’re expecting to tell your therapist your problem and then have them tell you what to do. The exploration of how you make decisions rather than the therapist making them for you can be very frustrating, but takes the work so much “further” as you said.

  • JD JD

    JD JD

    August 23rd, 2016 at 7:56 PM

    You’re wasting people’s money! And your boss sound’s like an idiot!

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    February 6th, 2015 at 3:15 AM

    Rebecca–thanks for that. Nope, not infallible and learning more every day!

  • JD JD

    JD JD

    August 23rd, 2016 at 7:58 PM

    Who would be dumb enough to spend their money if you don’t help!

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    February 6th, 2015 at 3:17 AM

    Ker–sounds like you’re doing your job by being as reflective as you are. It can be easy to slip into the all knowing therapist role the longer you’ve been doing it, right? Thanks for sharing!

  • Rebecca

    Rebecca

    February 6th, 2015 at 1:10 PM

    That takes a lot of courage to say that Justin. I think that by you doing it and admitting that you make mistakes too makes the rest of us more aware that maybe we aren’t that bad!

  • therapydoc

    therapydoc

    February 7th, 2015 at 6:33 PM

    Nice article! Harder to button it than to blather on, but totally worth the results. I’ll link to this article when I post on “Other People’s Stuff” sometime soon at EveryoneNeedsTherapy.Blogspot.com

  • Ella

    Ella

    February 8th, 2015 at 4:24 AM

    I know, I have always been that person that I thought others were coming to for advice, but what I failed to understand was that they didn’t want advice, they just needed someone to listen.
    And I have always been a very good listener and I thought a very good friend, but the thing is that sometimes to be a good friend too you have to learn when it is best to keep your mouth shut too, and that is the part that I have tried very hard to work on for a while.

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    February 9th, 2015 at 4:41 AM

    Rebecca-no other way to grow, right? I think it’s important to model that for my clients.
    Therapydoc-Thanks very much!
    Ella-those in the helping profession often want to know, ‘What can I do?’ or ‘What do I do next?’ and ‘How can I fix this?’ Sometimes listening is that act. Sure there’s more to therapy and counseling than just listening. Lots more. But it’s important to know what’s behind anything I say. Is it for me to feel good about having something to say? Is it what the client needs or is asking for at the moment? Good luck!

  • Marriage Counselingalt

    Marriage Counselingalt

    February 9th, 2015 at 5:05 AM

    Wonderful article and yes you are absolutely right

  • wheeler

    wheeler

    February 9th, 2015 at 10:21 AM

    I often infer from conversations that I have with others that they are asking for advice when in reality they aren’t and then they get mad about it, and I look back on what we talked about and don’t understand where the misunderstanding with one another has come from.

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    February 9th, 2015 at 11:08 AM

    Thanks, Mariage Counselingalt!

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    February 9th, 2015 at 11:11 AM

    Wheeler, it’s easy to misinterpret and sometimes people seem like they want advice or direction, but then get upset with any suggestions. It can be fine at times to ask directly, “How can I be helpful to you?” or “Would you like some advice with this issue?” I’ve had some success with that when I’m unsure what’s expected from me.

  • Bettye Jo Bell, MA, LLP

    Bettye Jo Bell, MA, LLP

    February 11th, 2015 at 10:18 AM

    To the writer: I would love to use your article as a springboard for a conversation with colleagues and interns. Anyway, I can copy, paste, print it with your permission? Thanks, Bj

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    February 17th, 2015 at 3:21 AM

    Bettye Jo,
    You can absolutely use the article! I’m glad you found it helpful. Just make sure that proper credit is given, please.
    Thanks! Keep in touch and let me know how it goes!

  • Tonya H

    Tonya H

    March 29th, 2015 at 1:01 PM

    Well said. Great article.

    There is an art to thematic listening, and assisting the client in hearing their words in a way that serves them.

    This begs an interesting reference to a recent discussion about confusion surrounding the techniques of paraphrasing, and timed skillful, reflective interpretation vs. advice. They are very different, nonetheless, misaligned.

    As aclinician, my personal approach involves what is referred to as “therapeutic wrestling,” which emphasizes the value of the cognitive struggle to “finding and hearing one’s own voice.” That is the beauty of each spirit we encounter. We are all wonderfully made. That understanding comes from the inside out, not the outside in. This is what we refer to as self-awareness.

    Thank you for this important contribution.

  • Anue N.

    Anue N.

    March 30th, 2015 at 7:24 AM

    The author starts his rationalization with the following statement – It’s not just a business strategy, as in “the customer is always right.” However, I suggest that it is more about business strategy than it is based on solid evidence of what works. “But psychological research on effective treatment for disorders like depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and the like has moved far beyond this view. Indeed, the most effective treatments for these conditions do not prioritize digging into the unconscious. As Yale psychologist Alan Kazdin put it when we discussed a 2011 article he wrote on the problems with individual talk therapy, “If you want to get over an anxiety disorder, do graduated exposure. But sit down and relate to me or love me like your mom and dad? There’s no evidence for that.” healthland.time.com/2012/11/27/can-branding-save-talk-therapy/

  • Elyssa M.

    Elyssa M.

    March 31st, 2015 at 6:44 AM

    Clearly, you, like the majority of our society, choose to use the word “evidence” as an end unto itself, as if having what is stated as “evidence” is enough to close the argument. But let’s open up that overused, thrown-around-willy-nilly word, shall we? When you and the individual you are quoting use the word ” evidence,” I am assuming the reference is to quantifiable evidence, the same type of evidence one might look for if determining how much coal in the air contributes to pollution, or which brand of sneaker is the best brand to purchase because it lasts the longest. If you are referring to quantifiable evidence to discuss psychotherapy, it is already obvious that you are out the realm of having an ability to discuss the subject at all, since those who do effective psychotherapy, or any real therapeutic intervention on a regular basis are already fully knowledgeable that one cannot quantify a relationship, or quantify an overall qualifiable experience. Thus, attempting to measure psychotherapy with the reductionist language of quantifiable “evidence” is like trying to tell someone about their fears and desires by taking a hair sample. Obviously, you are out of your realm. I may argue, however, that your strong response may point to your own avoidance issues. Someone clearly feels uncomfortable about discussing their parents!

  • Anue N

    Anue N

    April 1st, 2015 at 5:15 PM

    If you didn’t read the article referenced in my comment the “individual” who is quoted is, Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University, writing in the leading journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

    In his argument against the mental health profession continuing to rely so heavily on psychotherapy he addresses the unquantifiable aspects of the relationship you mention.
    “But what about the studies suggesting that it’s the relationship between the therapist and the client — not the technique — that matters?

    There’s no real evidence for this. Yes, a good relationship is related to clinical outcome but it plays no causal role whatsoever. Some new therapies don’t require a relationship at all. For example, there’s essay-writing therapy for trauma. It’s a set of self-administered treatments, there’s no relationship there — it’s not even an essential condition.

    It’s way overplayed. We did a study showing that the relationship isn’t so special. The quality of the relationship [between therapist and patient] relates to how social the patient was before treatment. It may be correlated to effectiveness of treatment, but the relationship has not shown to be causally involved.”

    As for me though, I love BOTH of my parents as much as I love discussing them and discussing me with them. “But I know what “pompous” means.”

  • Andrea

    Andrea

    June 14th, 2015 at 9:49 PM

    Thanks for the reminder! I am an LMSW under clinical supervision and I have been in the social services industry for 20 years…but a licensed therapist for 1. So, this article really spoke to me and reminds me to listen more. Something thats hard for someone who always gave advice and made decisions . Sometimes I need to take the cotton out of my ears and put it in my mouth.

  • Mike

    Mike

    June 25th, 2015 at 10:31 PM

    Anue N, I read a little about Kazdin, including reading parts of his book about parenting on Amazon. I wondered if any of his own personality might be visible, any of his own biases. It’s clear from reading his book that he’s a nice guy, but he doesn’t see the inner life of children at all. He repeatedly refers to parenting as “molding” or “shaping,” and in the section of his book called “Listen to Your Child,” he skips empathy and mirroring entirely (that would have been a great place to mention it!).

  • Rely

    Rely

    October 22nd, 2015 at 7:25 AM

    Please could you tell me if I’m allowed to translate this article and share it on a website( mentioning the source)?

  • Ashmin

    Ashmin

    November 18th, 2015 at 8:46 PM

    Hi🌹 I’m a practicing Logotherapist – teachings of Victor Frankl helps impart the wonderful truths of meaning centred therapy mostly dealing with people with an unavoidable fate something which is thrust upon them beyond their control is where empathy plays a big role as a therapist is to listen..rather than give advice. Encouraging that spirit never dies but rather whom we become as a person in the end regardless of our circumstances.. A victor or a victim

  • Ashmin

    Ashmin

    November 18th, 2015 at 8:51 PM

    It’s what’s lies within that has to be brought to the forefront by finding meaning and purpose in our lives from where we are to where we need to be. Thank you for a great article and have a gorgeous day🌹

  • Mario

    Mario

    November 25th, 2015 at 5:56 AM

    Thanks for this. Unfortunately, not everyone realizes that we know ourself better than anyone else. The last thing we need is another person telling us what to do.

  • Brian

    Brian

    December 19th, 2015 at 8:13 PM

    “The person in therapy is the expert.” Well put! Too many people forget this (both sides: clinicians and clients). I think also, some clients who have never been to therapy before, don’t know what to expect. Some may see it as visiting a doctor, expecting to be given a list of things they need to do to feel better. It’s definitely the therapist’s role to make sure the power in the room stays balanced, and the client remains responsible for his/her own decisions.

  • Karen

    Karen

    January 26th, 2016 at 10:17 AM

    I agree…. been in therapy with my therapist now almost 9 years and its not about getting advice its about having someone walk along side of your journey while WE as the client find the wisdom in the work with the guidance of the therapist. My therapist has never given me advice, or told me what to do … he has supported me in the conversations we have together with both of us coming up with healthy tools to help. I write about this a lot in my blog about my journey in therapy . . . . its a team effort, not one person telling you what to do.

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    January 26th, 2016 at 1:02 PM

    Thanks for sharing that, Karen!

  • sky

    sky

    February 2nd, 2016 at 8:58 AM

    I am only a high schooler and I love working with children and helping people when they need it. I have a question, do you love being able to help people?

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    February 2nd, 2016 at 11:04 AM

    sky–thanks so much for writing. helping people can feel great, right? What I love about my job is that I get to help people learn how to help themselves and that can be even better. And, of course, it’s really important not to forget to take care of myself along the way. So many people who help others for a living forget that! What good am I going to be to someone else if I’m not at my best?!

  • Sam

    Sam

    July 8th, 2016 at 6:13 PM

    Hello. Thank you for this article. I enjoyed your article and it resonated with me. What I wanted to say is that when a child comes to his mother so that she explains him the meaning of a word, it’s not that much about outsourcing this task, rather than using this as an excuse to connect emotionally, feel that she is there for him. Additionally, the way you framed it doesn’t look like giving unsolicited advice. It’s more like emotionally neglecting and rejecting the child. Had he come with some emotion that bothered him or a conflict with a peer, telling him what to do instead of just listening and being there would have been unsolicited advice. So I don’t quite think the last two paragraphs are a correct example of the idea of the article.

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    July 10th, 2016 at 5:48 PM

    Sam
    Thanks for your comment. I agree, often children may be looking for an emotional connection under the guise of a concrete question. I appreciate your being sensitive to that in a way many adults aren’t. For the purposes of my point I suppose I was talking about how our willingness to do so much for our kids might be getting in the way of empowering them–same with advice giving in therapy. I can see how my wording could be “smarmy” itself, though. Thanks!

  • Karen

    Karen

    October 20th, 2016 at 9:44 AM

    I have been in therapy with the same therapist for 9 years now. The one thing I have learned that has been SO HELPFUL on this journey is, therapy isn’t about the therapist telling you what to do, how to do it, or to giving you advice, its about building a healthy relationship in the therapy room, and using that relationship to connect and talk about things that are deep within. In that process, the therapist is there to GUIDE your own wisdom, and your own feelings and emotions. The therapist is there not to make the pain go away, or not to make everything your struggling with go away, he/she is there to walk the journey with you and help guide you to your potential self! My therapist has never told me what to do, but what we have done is talk together about a way to move in and our of struggles to help the healing process together as a team! That allows me to have that trust to talk to him about anything and that is the key to healing. I think a lot of people get the wrong idea of what a therapists role is, its a team effort, not one person having control over the process. I have come so far in my journey, and its because of my therapist and the good work we do that has gotten me to where I am today.

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    October 21st, 2016 at 3:31 AM

    Really beautifully said, Karen. Thanks for writing.

  • Dr R

    Dr R

    August 7th, 2017 at 3:29 PM

    I am a physician and my wife is therapist who is now a clinical sexologist with a Phd and well known. Her complaint about therapist as well as mine is that because many therapist do not know life experience and have their own personal issues that the author is right….they should not be given advice. However, that also does a disservice to their clients.
    What is needed is a therapist who is not green, has experience both clinically and in life who is willing to give good advice and is not afraid to do so. The premise that advice given should be a rare thing for a therapist should probably apply to either incompetent therapist or insecure therapists who do not know what advice to give.
    Today there is too much fear to guide clients and it is all about making people feel good without taking risks for fear of making a mistake. Why do you think the client came to you to begin with……yes to listen, yes….but to help them resolve and work through the issues that client came to see you for. Is it not a definition of a therapist one who helps remediate a health or psychological problem after a diagnosis in an attempt to fulfill and satisfied state? Just listening does not cut it and it is not doing your job.
    AR

  • Jake

    Jake

    January 30th, 2018 at 7:48 AM

    So, where does this leave people who really *do* need advice?

    You mention in the article that most patients already get bombarded with advice from other sources and while this is true, what you have to remember is:
    1. This advice is often vague to the point of being meaningless.
    2. When it is clear, it is usually tailored to suit the advice-giver, not the advice reciever.

    For example, when someone hasn’t found love, if their friends/family/coworkers do set this person up with a prospective partner, quite often it will be the type of person that those friends/family/coworkers want to that person to marry, rather then the type of person that person themself actually wants to be with.

    A therapist, on the other hand, should (in theory) be on our side, because they are PAID well to be on our side. Therefore, the advice they offer really ought to be advice on how to get what we really want, not what anybody else wants to impose on us. In some cases, this may well be the only hope these people have of actually getting the necessary, helpful advice they need.

    I ask because this major gap in the therapy system falls precisely where I need help; and nobody is willing to provide it. My life is beset with people extorting me into doing the things that they want me to do, and associating with the type of people they want me to associate with, while making out that doing these things will somehow amount to making my life worth living. But this payoff never occurs; quite the opposite in fact.

    What I need is someone to explain to me how I can get to be around *my* kind of people, not someone else’s kind of people; specifically in regard to finding a great wife. Subsequent to that, I may also need similar advice on getting into an appropriate job.

    I am very bad at geography and also at understanding what people want, especially when they express themselves vaguely. I spend most of my time trying to figure out how to solve my biggest problems – how to get the goodness I need in my life. I’ve been trying to figure it out for myself for the better part of two decades, but I just can’t figure it out. I thnk it’s fair to say by this point that I’m not getting out of this mess without help.

    But the people around me don’t want to help; they want to push their own agenda. What I need is impartial, meaningful advice that actually tells me what I have to do to get what I need.

    So, as I said earlier, where does that leave people like me, when the therapy industry has decided it won’t tell us what we need to know?

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    February 6th, 2018 at 9:19 AM

    Jake,
    I really appreciate your honest, thoughtful comment. I sense that you’ve tried quite a lot in order to connect with what you want in life (a positive relationship and career) and that much of that effort has not yielded a fulfilling outcome.
    I read (or hear in session) similar yearnings and, believe me, I want to give advice. I often want to tell people how to go about getting exactly what they need. And, to be honest, I bet you can find a therapist, a life coach, or some professional who will design a plan for you, advice and all.
    I’m convinced, though, that that rarely gets people to what they want.
    What happens again and again and again in the therapy room is that people learn self-compassion, they learn to become more aware of their feelings and how they affect others-as well as being more honest and open about how others (including their therapist) affects them.
    Suddenly (ok, not suddenly, but it can feel like that sometimes), doors seem to open for the two areas you are most concerned about (which are the two areas a good deal of people seek out treatment for, by the way): relationships and work.
    Getting to know yourself will allow you to get what you want. That’s the best advice I can give.

  • MS

    MS

    April 10th, 2018 at 12:52 PM

    Interesting banter of ideas! I’m a therapist. While I don’t give advice per sey, if a client remains stuck with problem-solving something that requires concrete/specific planning and specifically asks for a suggestion, I will offer it. Many times they will come back and let me know how helpful this was. Perhaps there’s a fine line here between giving advice and offering a much wanted suggestion? I suppose it can be argued that this straddles the line of therapist versus life coach, but there are times when I put on my life coach hat (which also includes being the client’s cheerleader). Same goes for knowing when to be passive and knowing when it’s time to confront. It’s a judgment call. No right or wrong, clear cut answers. And not all clients are in it for 9 years. Seriously, if I had a client in therapy continually for 9 years I would have to ask myself how I’m truly helping them.

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