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.