To Fix or Not to Fix? When to Give Advice and When to Listen

Note: This article focuses on the value of listening and common mistakes when giving advice. In the next article, we will consider how to use our words to reflect Christ and speak life into others.

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Ask yourself if you can relate to the following scenario:

Your loved one tells you about her current struggle. Shortly after she starts talking, you realize you already know what she should do to help herself. So you wait (and wait and wait) for her to finish talking, replaying your advice in your mind to keep from forgetting it. You nod politely as she keeps talking, but your eagerness to speak swells inside you like a water balloon about to burst. After what feels like an eternity, she (finally!) stops talking, and you immediately blurt out your opinion. “Mission accomplished!” you think.

If you can relate to this story, you aren’t alone. In fact, if you can’t relate to this story (or some variation of it), you are likely in the minority. As Stephen Covey observed, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand, but with the intent to reply.” The norm in our world is for people to talk at each other rather than to each other, to use conversation to voice one’s own opinion rather than to truly understand the other person.

This tendency becomes especially problematic when one interacts with a hurting loved one. We often refer to these people as “fixers”—those who seem more interested in offering their advice on how to correct a situation than truly hearing, understanding, and sympathizing with the person in pain. This “fixer” mentality can often be hurtful and counterproductive. Yet, never sharing our thoughts and advice also seems problematic. So, how do we know when to give advice and when to listen?

Quick to listen, slow to speak [advice]

Advice, itself, is a positive thing. Most of the time, when someone offers advice, it is because he wants good for the person to whom he’s talking. Why, then, is advice often hurtful? Who wouldn’t want direction on how to better herself or her situation?

Often the problem is not in the advice itself but in how or when it is delivered. Yes, some advice can be flat out bad. But what usually makes advice harmful is what precedes it—or better yet, what doesn’t precede it, namely listening and understanding. Advising without first listening is like driving a car without oil—it usually won’t work, and if it does, it will likely cause damage.

When walking alongside hurting loved ones, we should take the Apostle James’ words to heart: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…” Whether or not we give advice, our first priority should always be to listen and understand (not to “fix”). Consider four problems with a fix-first approach (i.e., prioritizing fixing over listening and understanding) and what makes a listen-first approach superior.

(1) The fix-first approach is often prideful—and foolish.

Whenever we offer advice before taking time to hear the other person, we communicate to her, “I am so wise that I don’t even need to listen to you to tell you what you need.” This sentiment not only drips with arrogance, but it’s also foolish. According to Proverbs 18:2, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” Proverbs 18:13 repeats the refrain: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”

Ironically, it is not wisdom that emboldens someone to advise without first listening; it is a lack of wisdom. Those quick to speak are repeatedly called fools (cf. Proverbs 10:8; 10:19; 17:28). Fortunately, the opposite is also true. Those slow to speak are repeatedly called wise (cf. Proverbs 10:8; 10:19; 17:27–28; 19:20). Consider the inverse of Proverbs 18:2: “A wise person takes pleasure in understanding, not merely in expressing his opinion.”

Do you want to grow in wisdom and humility? The path is clear: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Learn to take pleasure in listening and understanding, not merely vocalizing your opinion. 1

(2) The fix-first approach often leads to misguided advice.

Have you ever had a doctor cut you off and give you his prescription before you even finished sharing your symptoms? Isn’t it frustrating? You can’t trust his advice since he failed to listen and gather all the information first.

But imagine if the doctor had defended himself by saying, “Well, I am just a fixer! I don’t have time to listen!” That would be preposterous, wouldn’t it? You might say to him, “Listening isn’t opposed to fixing [or healing]; it’s an essential part of it!”

The same reality applies to our advice to others. If we advise without first listening, we will likely give the wrong prescription—a dangerous endeavor. Meanwhile, when we take the time to listen and understand the other person, our counsel will be more informed and much more likely to lead to true healing. If our ultimate desire truly is the other person’s healing—not some ulterior motive—we will listen carefully before offering a prescription.

(3) The fix-first approach keeps others from feeling safe enough, heard enough, and loved enough to take our advice.

Even when fixers happen to give the right advice (a rare feat when listening is absent), those around them seldom use it. The adage is true: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Whenever we treat others as problems to fix rather than people to foster, we objectify them and usually leave them uninspired by our words. If you don’t listen well when someone speaks, you shouldn’t expect her to listen when you speak (let alone apply your advice). Meanwhile, whenever we prioritize listening and understanding—without judging or immediately correcting—we establish trust. 2

The moment after someone shares something vulnerable is one of the most crucial occasions for establishing trust and influence. If your immediate response to someone’s difficult situation is, “Maybe you should…” or, “Well, this is why I have been telling you to…”, she will feel like you’re treating her life like a check engine light. Meanwhile, responses like “Tell me more” or “I am so sorry; [insert follow-up question]” establish safety and trust. The more you listen and seek to understand, the more she will feel safe, heard, and loved—and the more receptive she will be to your feedback. You earn the right to speak into others’ lives by first listening well. 3

(4) The fix-first mentality misses a golden opportunity to reflect the heart of Christ.

If anyone had a green light to fix people without first listening, it was Jesus. Jesus knew all things (John 16:30)—including what was in the hearts of men and women (John 2:25)—so he technically didn’t need to ask any questions. Yet, question-asking was one of Jesus’s favorite forms of ministry; the gospels alone record Jesus asking over 300 questions! Why is that? Why would Jesus ask so many questions (and take the time to listen) if he already had all of the answers? Why wouldn’t he just step onto the scene and start fixing people?

Clearly, Jesus saw his life mission as more than fixing and the purpose of listening as more than information-gathering. He used listening and asking questions to persuade others (cf. Matthew 6:25–34), to draw them out, to communicate love, and to help people understand themselves (cf. Matthew 9:27–31; 16:13–20; Mark 9:14–29; John 5:1–9; 11:21–27). If you met Jesus today, how would the interaction go? He would take interest in your life. He would ask you questions. He would listen attentively. He would look you in the eye. He would smile. He would make you feel seen, heard, and loved.

Jesus is not an unfeeling dentist who only cares about getting the plaque out of your life. He is the Bridegroom who knows and loves you and who saves you to know and love him. Jesus died on the cross not merely to fix us, but to save us from sin to bring us to himself (1 Peter 3:18).

Love by listening 

Jesus majored in the ministry of listening, and one of the best ways we can communicate the heart and love of Christ is by listening well to those around us.

Of course, Jesus did much more than listen to us; he also took action to save us. Jesus is not only a hearer; he is also a healer, and he regularly used words to bring life and restoration. In the next article, we will consider how to use our words and advice to reflect Christ and speak life into others.

Yet while Jesus’s ministry is more than listening, let’s take a moment today to cherish the fact that it’s not less than that. Even if no one in your life seems to want to listen, Jesus does. Rejoice afresh today in your loving, listening Lord!

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Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and Crosswalk.com and republished and/or referred by Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn)Challies.com (Tim Challies), Moody Radio (Dawn and Steve Mornings—here and here), The JOY FM (The Morning Cruise with Dave, Bill, and Carmen)ChurchLeaders.comThe Aquila ReportMonergism.com, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

Watch or listen to “With Us in the Wilderness” (sermon) here.

Read “Four(teen) Ways to Improve Your Listening” here.

Read “Can I Do Anything With Completely Pure Motives?” here.

Read “Five Habits That Kill Contentment” here.

Read “Three Ways to Glorify God in Worry and Anxiety” here.

Four(teen) Ways to Improve Your Listening

“Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener and whose work they should share.” —Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen [and] slow to speak…” —James 1:19, NIV

Nothing unburdens a hurting soul, delights a cheerful soul, or gives clarity to a muddled soul like a friend who listens with interest. As David Augsburger observed, “Being heard is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.” (I would also suggest that being heard is so close to being known that most people cannot tell the difference.)

We all long to be known and loved, and listening is custom-fit to accomplish both of these ends. When done correctly, listening can bring healing, refreshment, encouragement, transformation. In fact, I would argue that there is not a single conversational habit you could adopt that will have a greater impact on the people in your life than listening well. (The practice of giving specific encouragement is also near the top of the list.)

The problem is that many parents, counselors, teachers, and friends believe the best way to have an impact is to talk—to offer advice, share knowledge, or impress with words of wisdom. Most of the time, that’s not the case. As the adage goes, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” You earn the right to speak into one’s life through listening well. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “We should listen with the ears of God so that we may speak the word of God.”

Do you want to have an impact on those around you? Learn to listen well. Listening is a gift you can always give and a skill you can always improve. To that end, consider four(teen) ways to improve your listening.

1. Choose to listen.

I’d argue that something like 70% of the reason why people don’t listen well is because they don’t choose to, whereas 30% is because they don’t know how. In other words, the first step to listening well is a matter of intentionality. It’s a matter of conscious choice.

In every conversation, you have two options (with a wide spectrum in between): tune out or listen well. Often this is simply the choice between putting yourself first and putting the other person first. As Stephen Covey put it, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Most people are more interested in what they have to say than what you have to say.

The reason being heard feels so much like being loved is because true listening is loving. It is caring rather than consuming, understanding rather than using, giving rather than taking. Not many habits reflect the gospel more powerfully than this.

2. Don’t assume you already know what the other person has to say.

Perhaps nothing kills active listening more than assuming “I already know this.” Worse, when we assume the other person has nothing interesting, new, or novel to offer, it can subtly fuel spiteful feelings toward him. To quote Bonhoeffer again, “There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person” (emphasis mine).

At best, the assumption that the other person has nothing new or interesting to offer is unhelpful. At worst, it will deteriorate a relationship. Meanwhile, if you approach interactions with the expectation that you will learn something new, you will not only listen better, discover more, and participate with greater enjoyment, but you will also honor the other person and reflect the love of Christ. As my friend Caleb Collins put it, “Treat others like they have something valuable to say and you will likely both give and get something valuable in return.”

3. Become an expert at asking questions.

Asking questions and listening are a match made in heaven (literally). Jesus asked over 300 questions in the gospels alone—even though he “already knew what others had to say” infinitely more than we do! (See Psalm 139:4; John 2:24-25.) If question-asking and listening were merely about information gathering, Jesus wouldn’t have done it. Yet he majored in it. Why? Because question-asking is a uniquely powerful form of ministry.

Asking questions communicates that you value the other person (and what she has to say) in a way that talking simply cannot—regardless of how profound your words are. This is a priceless gift in a world full of people starving to be noticed and valued. If you ask good questions, people will encounter the attentive, loving, interested presence of Christ through you in a rare and transformative way.

If you struggle to think of good questions to ask, remember that you always have FORKS in your tool belt. (See this article for an explanation of this acronym and further tips on asking great questions.)

If you are a counselor or a friend of a hurting loved one

Asking questions is especially important when helping a hurting loved one. Asking questions shows the other person that you see her as a person to foster, not a problem to fix. (It also helps you give much better counsel if and when you do speak.) Always aim to ask at least 3 questions before offering your input.

Counselors should aim at something like a 10-to-1 ratio between asking questions and giving advice. Effective counseling is much more about understanding the other person (and helping him understand himself) than it is about fixing or giving answers. People are more likely to change when you help them come to a conclusion than when you tell them what they should think. Advice (often) band-aids a wound; listening and asking questions work toward healing the wound.

4. Show interest.

If you want to make someone feel heard, listen. If you want to make someone feel loved, listen with interest. Consider ten ways to grow in this area:

  1. Look her in the eye. Maintaining eye contact communicates to the other person, “You are the most important thing to me right now.” Wandering eyes will always make the other person feel unheard (or not fully heard at best).
  1. Face her. As someone is talking, ask yourself, “Does my body language communicate that I am all-in on this conversation or that I’m more interested in something else?”
  1. Put down your phone. Not many things communicate disinterest (and disrespect) more than looking at your phone when someone is talking to you. Meanwhile, putting your phone away assures the other person that she has your undivided attention.
  1. Ask clarifying questions. Clarifying questions communicate your desire to understand and your interest in the conversation. Two of the best questions to ask are, “What did you mean by [insert one specific word or phrase they said]?” and “Are you saying that [insert what you think they’re saying in your own words]?” 
  1. Smile. Smiling shows that you enjoy the other person’s presence. You don’t need to smile for the entire interaction. But if you spend two hours with someone and you never smile, what does this communicate to the other person about your interest in them?
  1. Nod while she’s talking. Facial expressions and non-verbal affirmations show her that you understand and you’re actively listening.
  1. Write down important details. It can be easy to forget important parts of a dialogue (e.g., the names of her kids, the anniversary of her mom’s death, her prayer requests). Immediately after a conversation ends, make note of these things. Remembering sensitive details will go a long way in making someone feel heard and loved.
  1. Set aside time for undistracted listening. It is understandably difficult to listen well as you’re rushing out the door, about to take an important phone call, or falling asleep after a long day. Make listening easier by setting aside time when you can be engaged without distraction. If you’re unable to give someone your full attention, ask her, “Can we talk about this [insert a specific day and time]?” This communicates that you care about this person’s thoughts enough to make sure you can give them your full attention.
  1. Pray. Before you meet with someone (or before you get home from work to see your spouse), pray, “Help me to listen well.” This glorifies God, honors the other person, and puts your mind in the right place. And you better believe God is delighted to answer this prayer!
  1. Follow up. Every time you follow up with someone about something she said, you communicate that “I heard you, I care about you, and I want to hear more about you.” Often the sweet spot to follow up is within 24-72 hours.

Love by listening

You will have an opportunity to love someone today by listening well. Take advantage of this opportunity and lean into it as a gift from God. Not many things will convey the affection of Christ more powerfully than your intentional and interested attention.

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Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and Crosswalk.com and republished and/or referred by Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn)Challies.com (Tim Challies), Moody Radio (Dawn and Steve Mornings—here and here), The JOY FM (The Morning Cruise with Dave, Bill, and Carmen)ChurchLeaders.comThe Aquila ReportMonergism.com, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

Read “Five Habits That Kill Contentment” here.

Read “Four Burdens Jesus Never Asked You to Carry” here.

Read “Three Ways to Glorify God in Worry and Anxiety” here.

Read “An Answer to Prayer Even Better Than Clarity” here.