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Avoiding the Advice Trap

Jill Whelan
Indianapolis IN USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 37 No. 4, August-September 2001, p. 84

"Hello? Is this La Leche League? I am having some problems nursing my baby and I could really use your advice!"

As LLL Leaders we get calls like this often. After all, LLL is the recognized world authority on breastfeeding, and each of us as a Leader is an "expert" in the sense that we have each nursed at least one year. We are passionate about what we are doing. We believe in the philosophy and mission of LLL. We are delighted when mothers seek our breastfeeding expertise. Mothers sometimes directly ask, "What do you think I should do?" or "What would you do if you were in my place?' We may feel that we owe these mothers answers. But a response that begins with words such as "You ought to..." or "You need to ... " or 'Why don't you..." or "Well, if I were you, I'd..." falls into the category of advice.

In Human Relations Enrichment (HRE) II sessions, we discuss the ways in which giving advice can damage the helping relationship. If the mother accepts the advice and is successful, she may come to be dependent on the Leader for all of her parenting decisions. If she accepts the advice and fails, she may reject the credibility of the Leader as well as that of LLL. If the mother does not follow the advice and succeeds, she may similarly conclude that the Leader really does not know much, and she will probably not come back for help in the future. If the mother rejects the advice and fails, she may either resent the Leader for seeming to prove her wrong, or she may become dependent on the Leader. Either way, the mother's self-confidence will likely be very low.

Robert Bolton, in his book People Skills, calls advising one of the most commonly used "roadblocks" to communication; even he, who knows it is rarely constructive, finds that it is a "rather constant temptation." It is certainly a temptation for many of us as Leaders, new and experienced alike! However, Bolton cautions that giving advice "implies a lack of confidence in the capacity of the person with the problem to understand and cope with his or her own difficulty." THE LEADER'S HANDBOOK states, "When someone
gives advice they also send another unspoken message: a lack of confidence
and trust in the listener. The assumption is that the listener needs to be told what to do." Since respect and trust are the basis of an effective helping relationship, it is clear why giving advice should be avoided.

We in LLL strive to encourage mothers to trust their own instincts, to develop their own mothering styles, to make informed decisions for their families based on their unique needs and situations. Instead of giving advice, we offer information. Vicky Tanco, a Leader from Sao Paulo, Brazil, developed a method she calls, "LACE" for helping without giving advice.

1. Listen. Wait for the question. Allow the mother to give you an insight into herself - her feelings, attitudes, and relationship with her baby. It takes time to get to know someone. A phone call may not be enough. However, by listening actively, letting the mother use us as a sounding board, we can better help her go on to the next step.
2. Ask questions. Ask specific questions. Use How and What (What is your baby's feeding pattern? Describe to me how his diapers look.), rather than questions answerable by yes or no. Also ask a mother about her thoughts, such as How do you feel about that? and What feels right to you? or What would you like to see happen?
3. Give choices. Impart enough information to allow the mother to make an informed decision. Avoid telling her what to do. Use phrases like 'Many mothers have found' or 'Let me read to you what I have on the subject.' Her choice will stem from her own discernment of the situation and the responsibility will rest on her.
4. Let information and support empower her. It is the mother's responsibility to decide what's best for her family. She is the expert in her baby's care. Information and support are seeds that will help her confidence grow in her mothering. An important point to remember is that the Leader is not responsible for persuading the mother one way or the other. You do not need to feel that you have somehow failed if the mother makes a choice different from one you yourself would have made, or one that runs counter to LLL philosophy. That new mother who perhaps chooses to wean early with her first baby will be likely to come to LLL for help and support with successive babies if she goes away with a positive feeling about her relationship with you. She may pass the word along to her family and friends who have babies. And who knows,
someday she may become a Leader herself. "Avoiding the Advice Trap' was adapted from Leaders' Line, the Area Leader's Letter (ALL) of Indiana, USA, Spring 2000.


Bolton, R. People Skills. 1979; 22
LEADER'S HANDBOOK. Schaumburg, Illinois: LLLI, 1998; 23.

Jill Whelan has been a Leader in Indianapolis, IN, USA for 12 years, and an HRE Instructor for four years. She is married to Chuck Mullen, and has two sons, Andrew (16) and Patrick (10), whom she homeschools. Even though her children are long past the age of breastfeeding, she continues to enjoy the friendships (and the pot-lucks!) that being involved in LLL brings. She is especially fond of supporting Leaders and Applicants by giving HRE sessions and speaking at Area Conference.
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