Ed.: We’re delighted to have Rachel Messenger guest post for us on how she’s learned not to give advice when a loved one is laid off.
My best friend is one of the smartest, most hilarious, most incredible people I know. She lived in Morocco for several years, working with the Peace Corps to educate women in a country where that sort of thing is still just catching on. She is able to communicate in three languages, all of which are of current and intense political import (English, Spanish, and Arabic). She earned her Master of Public Policy so that she can work in a field where she feels she is directly contributing to the good of mankind, a field in which she has worked, now, for several years.
Somehow, this amazing women was laid off a few weeks ago. And I am the one at a loss.
Many of us are in this boat; we feel the sting of the recession not because we’re directly impacted, but because someone for whom we care is affected. Maybe it was your husband. Maybe your friend. Or perhaps the guy from accounting who always cracked jokes for you in the breakroom. Either way, the inclination for many of us is to start helping, which is where we have the chance to handle things poorly, or handle things well. There are plenty of lists and advice columns online on how to deal with this delicate balance; some, like this Forbes article from February of 2010, discusses exactly what not to say, as even innocent suggestions might backfire on you. I wish I had seen this article before my friend was laid off because, were that the case, I would not be in a position to rattle off a quick listing of the well-intentioned gaffes I have made with her. As my best friend wryly reminds me, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. My road, apparently, is paved with emails about career advice.
Thus, gauche maneuver number one. My best friend is smart. Freakishly smart. She possesses advanced degrees, and is clearly intelligent enough to navigate through a world that, some believe, grows increasingly more hostile and dangerous. So what I was thinking when I sent her a few emails on interesting jobs or career websites, I don’t know. It’s not that she isn’t gracious and appreciative, but this is her default response, because she is a decent human being. She’s the kind of person who would be gracious and appreciative even in the most dire of circumstances, so long as she believed the person ruining her life was well-meaning. That said, sending unsolicited advice, of any kind, sends with it an implicit message: that the recipient somehow needs your help, guidance, and sage-like advice. Forget the millions of articles outlining why advice-giving simply doesn’t work; all you need do is remember how you felt the last time someone gave you a helpful little piece of advice, especially when it was not directly sought out. Sadly, this includes sending emails on humorous sites, like Stuff Unemployed People Like. Again, even if your friend (former coworker, spouse, whomever) has the intestinal fortitude to laugh at their own situation, it can send a message above and beyond the just-wanted-to-make-you-smile message you think you’re communicating. At best, you may seem callous, insensitive. Or, you could be seen as malicious, cruel. I have learned that my advice, information, and sense of humor about the situation, while (undoubtedly) wise and well-intentioned, is better reserved for when I am actually asked. Even if that moment never comes.
I need to beware, too, of restating the obvious. Said best friend was in the process of moving to her Washington, DC home a few years back, and was asking around for advice on neighborhoods, farmers markets, etc. An acquaintance of hers, when asked which neighborhoods in DC are nice, said, “well, have you ever head of Craigslist?” This is the same as with people who are currently job hunting after having been laid off; my best friend works in the non-profit sector, and has had people recently suggest she try seeking out niche non-profit websites, such as Idealist.org. This, for someone who has worked in the non-profit sector for several years, is like suggesting to a hungry person that she eat. Unless my suggestion is for an incredibly specific job post, or I have contact information that could genuinely move the job hunting process along, it’s best for me to lay off forwarding information. Again, there’s an implication that I know better than she what to do, and she’s probably heard it already. From me, her mom, and 75,829 of her other well-meaning friends, acquaintances, family, and former coworkers.
I am not suggesting that you lay low until unemployment blows over, waiting patiently until the awkwardness you perceive has passed. What I am saying is that, unless it’s a truly groundbreaking job lead, my unemployed friends don’t need my help. What they need is their friend. Someone to listen, without judgment, without advice dispensing. Someone with whom to hit up happy hour and be silly. My plan is to let go of trying to fix things (which I really, really like to do) and follow her lead. In fact, she has an interview coming up on Tuesday, and she asked me, based on my background in HR management, if a summer suit would be appropriate. I, in true Socratic method, keeping in mind that advice-giving rarely goes the way you think it will, simply asked a question back: Well, what do you think?
Also, it never hurts to pray for the intercession of St. Cajetan, the patron saint of gainful employment and job seekers.
If you have any thoughts on the subject – or, have any well-meaning-advice-gone-wrong stories to share – we’d love to hear them!
Rachel Messenger is a Personal Development Coach at Blank Canvas Coaching, a Phoenix-based coaching company that creates future-focused methods and tools with the aim of helping clients achieve goals.