“If you plan for the worst, all surprises are pleasant.”
Gaul in “The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan
It has been said that people don’t want advice, they want an accomplice. At the very least, they do not want someone to tell them they did something wrong, berate them, or decide for them, they want to be comforted, to be told that everything will turn out fine.
I recently was asked by a good friend for my opinion on an eMail she had already send. It is usually a bad sign if a person wants an opinion after something has been done — usually, the person knows or feels that something it amiss. In this situation it was very hard for me to give any opinion, because everything I say that could be improved cannot be improved, it is already to late. So whatever I say, no matter how right I am, would hurt the person, which would be wrong. Unfortunately, I had some strong opinions about the eMail. This person, who is my most valued friend, did something wrong without meaning to do so, and in my opinion, the eMail could make it worse. I could perfectly understand why she had written the eMail — she was very concerned about the situation and she meant well, which is one of the reasons I like her very much. But meaning well and doing well did differ in this case, at least in my opinion.
What my friend most likely wanted was to be comforted. She knew that she had screwed up and she wanted to be told that everything will be fine. But I have a problem with telling that because I can neither guarantee it nor do I think so. But I do not think that it will turn out bad either. I see some of the possible futures the situation could turn into — from the good ones to the very bad.
This is one of the boons and curses of creativity — it is very easy to imagine the very best and the very worst. And good possible futures are not worth thinking about any further. You do not need to be prepared for good futures, you just need to remind yourself to enjoy them, to have some present hedonism (as Zimbardo would say). It’s the bad ones that need work and preparation. So I try to find the worst scenarios possible, find even the ones that the person has not thought about. Most people stop listening to people who are drawing their possible worst futures in intense colors. Instead of facing what could happen they accuse the person of being a pessimist or a worrywart. It is hard to listen to these catastrophes where one might play the main role — and my friend did not like it. She told me in a very tired and tense voice: “Daniel, I am not in the mood for any further catastrophe scenarios.” Neither do I like thinking about what disasters can happen to others, especially to her. However, the creativity does not stop with the catastrophes. It is only the raw material for the next step: finding possible solutions for the possible catastrophes — and this is the part that I do like.
I like preparation, it is easier to win, to survive, this way. The damages are fewer, the actions better. This does not mean to plan out everything up to the last detail and stifle any further flexibility. On the contrary: flexibility is still needed because future reality is always different than the imagined ones one has planned for — but it might be sufficiently similar to a scenario that you have planned for. Preparation can be adapted and if you know how to deal with certain negative situations you might transfer that knowledge to similar other negative situations.
So what I did and like doing very much is
- find out what did happen,
I do not believe that there is certain truth in reports about the past, we all have our personal perspective which biases our reports, but if I know how this person did experience the situation, I can think about how other involved parties might have experienced it.
- imagine what could happen (the worst cases), and
This means going as far as possible to the bad side without becoming ludicrous, covering as many different areas where something bad might happen.
- find possible solutions or strategies for the worst cases that could happen.
Which means to prepare some solutions for different lines of possible (negative) futures in the hope that, if something similar happens, the person can transfer the preparation from a similar scenario to the occurring scenario.
I guess what my friend wanted, when she asked me, were some words of comfort to soothe her raging emotions of worry and fear. What she got was a quick analysis of the situation and a short preparation in case it turns out bad. I do not know whether she would have felt better receiving just some words of comfort, but I know that I would not have felt better. If I think that a bridge across a river might break while a friend of mine crosses it, I do not tell her that it is going to be all right. I make sure that she knows how to swim and how to react if the bridge breaks. This allows her to cross the bridge in full knowledge of her own skills to deal with a possible bad situation on her own if it arises. And it probably helps her in other situations as well. I think playing this kind of “devil’s advocate” (or ‘fate’s advocate’) is better than crossing ones fingers and hoping for the best — after all, the best might not happen and the worst can be prepared for. I feel more comfortable to know that she is at least somewhat prepared for the worst, and I do hope for the best. If the best does happen, I am more than happy for her.
While giving her feedback I found out what kind of ‘advice’ or feedback I can give and that it is completely irrelevant what I think about the situation or the eMail. It is about what helps the person most. And there I have problem with just comforting a person, because while it may calm her for a moment, it leaves her vulnerable and unprepared if it turns out bad. Even worse, I would be partly responsible because I said that it would be all right. I think it is better in the long run to have a hard look at the situation, sketch out the bad cases and prepare for them. This way the person has to confront herself that it might not turn out well which might even make matters worse for a moment. But even if it does not turn out well, she is prepared to deal with it because she has thought about ways to act in these possible worst case situations and she knows that I do trust her to deal with them competently.
And I think that this knowledge is more helpful than any short-term emotional comfort.