Deans, advisors, FroCos and friends — it’s easy to find answers at Yale when you need them. But what if the true solution to your problems is not the right answers, but the right questions? What if instead of telling you what to do based on their experiences, people asked you what you wanted to do based on your own experiences?
The suggestion seems counterintuitive. But let’s reframe: When your friend asks you what she should eat for dinner, it’s not at all strange for you to first ask her what kind of food she’s craving. Cheap or fancy? Greasy or healthy? More often than not, a few probing questions alone will lead her happily to her usual Tomatillo burrito, without any restaurant-listing on your part. It’s easier that way — after all, you don’t know what she had for lunch, how long it’s been since she ate or whether her last trip to Chipotle made her violently ill. The essential information needed to make the right decision is in her head, and all you need to do is ask the right questions. In fact, it would be absurd if — based on none of her preferences at all — you suggested Pepe’s. How inconsiderate! You should have known that she’s not willing to walk to Wooster Square on a Sunday night. But you didn’t ask.
As juvenile as a burrito analogy may seem, the problems with giving concrete advice are pervasive — when you ask a friend about a strange hookup, do you receive constructive discussion or a scathing verdict in your favor? When you ask an advisor about your schedule, are you first asked why you want to take six credits or are you immediately told that it’s not a good idea? More often than not in both situations, it is the latter. As inexperienced young adults, we’re expected to take the advice — all of the advice — of professionals and assertive upperclassmen. But it’s simply not possible. Well-meaning answers from loving peers can transform “yes or no” decisions into a multiple-choice test with 40 answer choices — but in this case, there’s no guarantee that the right answer is even there.
That’s where investigative advising comes in. Sophie, why do you want to double major? Kevin, do you feel happy when you walk into “International Challenges?” Catherine, why do you use examples to explain simple concepts? I’m not encouraging anyone to ignore their friends, send their dean a declaration of independence or commit to an emails-only communication with their academic advisor — in fact, I encourage everyone to continue using all the resources the Yale experience provides. However, I do think both advice-seeker and advice-giver could benefit from looking at the relationship from a new angle. Isn’t the best resource your friend’s own life? Perhaps this nonassertive advising strategy will perturb many of the aspiring consultants out there. After all, we often assume that the best way to help someone is to tell them what they can do.
But get this: Giving life advice is not the same as giving directions. To assume that you know someone’s life as well they do is pretentious and presumptive. Your job, as advice-giver and friend, is to probe your friends until they know what they really feel. Ask questions. Fill in missing information if necessary. Do not instruct, do not lead and save your opinions for your journal. After all, their futures are not about you. Extending this question-based strategy to formal advising at Yale could pose a significant challenge — investigative advising has the potential to require more time than overbooked deans and professors can provide. Furthermore, academic advisees often truly have no knowledge or prior experience about the subject area that they wish to discuss. But within the student community, and especially amongst close friends discussing social interactions, there is no such barrier to achieving this ideal. After all, we all want what is best for our friends, and part of that investment is learning how to best help them.
Then again, as your friendly columnist for the News, I should be practicing what I preach. Don’t let me tell you what’s best for you. What do you think is the best way to give friends advice? What do you think of advising at Yale? And while we’re at it, what are your thoughts on Tomatillo?
Catherine Yang is a junior in Trumbull College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .