NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

Kyle MacDonald: How to give good advice

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald.  Click here for the original article…

“In an earlier column you talked about what not to do if someone is depressed. Why is it bad to share one’s own experience of depression, if useful tools have been found?

One of the common clichés about therapists is that they never answer a question, instead you get one fired straight back at you:

“Why is it important to you to talk about your own depression?”

There’s some truth in that, but there’s also a reason for it. Advice is easy to give, but it’s also easy to discard, because what works for others may or may not work for you.

However, under the right circumstances, it can be helpful, especially if people have had similar experiences.

Alcoholics Anonymous is a good example of this; one of the things people often say is helpful about AA is hearing from other’s about what happened to them, and what helped.

Early in my career, working in addictions treatment, at times I felt unsure about how to work with clients, as someone who hadn’t experienced an addiction myself. A senior colleague said two things to me that helped immensely.

Firstly, that I didn’t need to have had the same experience to help. The fact that I knew about how not to be addicted was in itself helpful.

And secondly, many people mistakenly assume that if you’ve had similar experiences you know the solution, and as a result, you stop listening.

To me, this is the core dilemma of how hard it is to give good advice, but also important advice about how to do it well.

Advice about giving advice

• Make sure you take time to listen to the person. Let them tell you what the problem is, don’t assume you know what is wrong until they tell you.
• Ask permission to share your story and offer advice: “Can I tell you about my experience and what worked for me?”
• When you do share your experience, stick to talking in “I” statements. Talk about what happened to you, how you felt, what you did, what helped and what didn’t help.
• Never, ever, use the word “should.” It’s the verbal equivalent of finger wagging, and is almost never helpful.
• Let the person make their own conclusions, and make use of your advice in whatever way they need to. They probably won’t do exactly what you did, and that’s OK.
• Remember, you don’t have to have to have all the answers, but you do have your truth and your answers to share


• Questions will remain anonymous
Where to get help:

• Gambling Problem Helpline: 0800 654 655,
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906 (Palmerston North and Levin)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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