Why We Don’t Know Better

Follow on

Several years ago, someone I know told me he was contemplating divorcing his wife.  I wasn’t surprised.  He’d been unhappy in the marriage for some time—and, in my opinion, with good reason:  his wife was jealous to the point of being neurotic, often behaving in ways that were shockingly inappropriate, offensive, and stress-inducing.

Or so he’d described to me.  Though he’d managed, over the years, to paint a clear picture of her personality and character, I couldn’t personally verify any of it.  I’d never met her.

Which didn’t stop me, I discovered when he came to me declaring his readiness and intention to divorce her, from having an opinion about what he should do:  run as far away from as her as fast as he possibly could.  Which, I recognized, was partly why he told me about his intention.  He wanted my support.  He wanted me to affirm that his decision was a good one.


His coming to me got me thinking about how eager we all are to give advice, even when we’re not asked for it.  Or perhaps I should say, how eager I am to give advice.  Do I really consider myself so wise that I can predict the future, that I know if people only do what I suggest that they’ll find their way to the best possible outcome?  Is my ego so wrapped up in being able to steer people in the direction of happiness that I’m comfortable imagining I know everything about their situation—even enough about their situation—to be able to make a better decision than they could themselves?

Sometimes, the answer may actually be yes.  Some people operate with a consistently distorted thought process—or a thought process that consistently distorts around certain issues or relationships—that impairs their ability to make good decisions.  But does our perception of this defect, even when correct, position us to know better?

We often think so, even about people we don’t know.  We often think, when hearing about the troubles of celebrities, for example, that we know how they should have acted or how we would have acted, judging them harshly for their foolish behavior.  Or we think we know if we should send additional troops to Afghanistan, or how to fix our ailing health care system.  And yet even the few people who have all the relevant data at their immediate disposal with which to make judgments struggle to make good decisions.


We’re missing data.  Even if our judgment is superior, whether it’s about deciding to send more troops, how to change the health care delivery system, or whether someone else should divorce their spouse, most of us rarely (though obviously not always) have enough raw knowledge to be anything other than potentially dangerous.

We all have opinions, though.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Where we go wrong is investing in them too strongly, judging the decisions of others too critically.  Unless we have access to all the information they had when they made their judgment (and admittedly, if we make the effort, sometimes we can), we’re simply not positioned to judge their judgment at all, no matter how superior to theirs our judgment may be.

I remember the outrage felt by much of the country when O.J. Simpson was acquitted.  I was outraged, too, convinced he was guilty.  Yet, unlike the twelve jurors, I’d heard little of the specific evidence the prosecution presented against him.  I never received explicit instructions from the judge on how to consider what I’d heard.  I wasn’t one of the people actually responsible for deciding whether or not to find him, a fellow human being, guilty of murder.  So it was easy for me to have a strong opinion, to be outraged like so many others at the injustice of his acquittal—my opinion carried no real significance; it sent no one to prison or to the gas chamber.  And though my gut still tells me O.J. was guilty, I refuse to judge the jury that decided he wasn’t.  I didn’t hear what they heard.  I didn’t myself have to decide anything.


During the conversation with my friend, there came a pause in which I felt he wanted to hear my judgment about his intention to divorce his wife.  And the temptation to do just that rose up like a powerful impulse to cough that I couldn’t stop—but that I did.  I decided I would give him something far more valuable than advice:  my encouragement.  “What an awful situation for you both to be in,” I empathized.  “Just even to be seriously contemplating divorce must be terrible for you.”  He agreed with a heavy sigh it was.  I told him I had confidence he would figure out what was best for him even if, when he decided what to do, he still wasn’t sure about it.  I told him I’d support whatever decision he made.

His reaction was immediate:  his expression relaxed, his speech softened, and his frustration cooled.  He nodded, thanked me for having listened, and left.  He ended up reconciling with her for about six months, during which time I finally had a chance to meet her, at a party.  She seemed, to my surprise, a lovely person, well-balanced, witty, and without a trace of the insecurity and neurotic behavior my friend had described.  I made note of these unexpected observations but was especially careful to withhold judgment.  I was, after all, given only a few hours of contact with her.  But four months after that, another crisis point was reached, and my friend finally did file for divorce.  This time, he didn’t ask my opinion.

Next weekGetting People To Change Their Minds

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Fantastic article.

    And I was reading through this book called Quiet Leadership in which one of its points was how people tend to give advice and how those receiving advice tend NOT to listen because their perspectives are different due to differences in brain chemistry AND mental maps.

    I too easily jumped in to give advice at times. That usually is not what the person wants. And from what i have now learned in real life and in articles such as yours, even if advice is what the person explicitly asked for, it is far better to let the person come to his own understanding on what to do.

  • Thanks for another thoughtful post. This is one area where I do think I’ve improved as I’ve gotten older. I’m less likely to give advice unless I’m asked for it. And I’ve learned not to judge who was “right” and who was “wrong” when when a relationship goes sour (be it people I know or celebrities). In fact, I make it a point to say to people when they start taking sides that we don’t know what goes on inside other people’s relationships. I might even pose a hypothetical—so, if a friend says, “But he cheated on her,” I might say, “Well, maybe she’d refused to be intimate with him for years.” This is similar to the way you approached the O.J. Simpson trial. We weren’t in the courtroom. Can we be sure we wouldn’t have voted to acquit? I like the teaching of a Korean Zen master named Seung Sahn. He said “Keep a Don’t Know Mind.” It’s a great practice.

  • You completely got me with this: “…most of us rarely (though obviously not always) have enough raw knowledge to be anything other than potentially dangerous.”

    Truer words were never said. 🙂

  • Yes, definitely best, as kei put it, to “let the person come to his own understanding on what to do,” concurring with you, Dr. Lickerman—and yes, great subject.

    I am actually finding this one of the many liberating things about getting older—knowing we don’t need to, indeed, shouldn’t have, an opinion about everything; knowing that even when we have walked in someone’s shoes, none of us have exactly the same feet—that is, we’ve had a similar situation, but we are not the same person as the one coming to us for advice, so it really isn’t possible to have an actual “answer” for someone else. Advice is best, it seems to me, mostly in the form of questions one might want to suggest the friend think about, and then only when one is sure that this person truly wants your input—in other words, go slowly during this conversation and try to be *with* them in figuring things out, not coming “at” them with an answer.

    I find this often comes up in the relationship between adult children and parents—this is a tremendous and often very satisfying challenge (okay, sometimes frustrating too!) when done mindfully—mindful of the fact that when dispensing (even asked-for) advice, you are not the one who will have to live with the consequences of that advice, which may, after all, turn out to be wrong for someone else. So, for me, at least, I’ve found that my advice is usually helping my daughter, for instance, figure out what *she* will find most comfortable to live with—regardless of what I might do in the same situation—always emphasizing that the complexity of most issues means there is very rarely going to be that longed-for right or wrong “answer,” but rather that when looking back, even if, or especially if, it doesn’t turn out for the best, she will be able to know that she gave it her best thinking, pausing, feeling, and not just reacting—a perspective that getting older, mercifully, brings.

    Thanks, Dr. Lickerman, as always, for your thoughts!

    Liana: That was a great comment.


  • If advice/words were to be given, and the words spoken come from the heart, they have the power to change a person’s life. If you speak from the heart the person listening will feel it. Advice can be given with pros and cons but the decision must be made by the person seeking the advice.

  • I learned long ago from a wise person: “We never know what goes on behind closed doors.” That thought always comes to me in these circumstances.

  • I truly believe that everyone—really, EVERYONE!—is doing the best they know how with what they have and the way they’ve come to see the world. I agree, we all have decision points, but even then, how can anyone really judge all that brought a person to the point where they chose as they did? In their situation, WITH THEIR EXPERIENCES AND INHERITANCE (physical and emotional), I can never know how I would respond. I don’t think anyone is ever truly qualified to judge objectively. I know there are times when it’s necessary to try; such as in a law court. But I think it’s far more often necessary to suspend judgment, or at least suspend acting upon it. Having said that, it’s very difficult at times to realize I’m even doing it. Awareness and intention help a lot, though.


  • Thanks for this great essay and all these thoughtful comments. I am learning to recognize when I think I know better it generally is my ego that thinks this, and to choose to not respond from that mindset. It makes me a better listener actually, wiser and more compassionate. I just read yesterday somewhere that sometimes the best answer is to hold a hand and listen with an open heart. Because people sometimes ask my advice in my profession I try to be mindful to suggest a solution from a place of they probably knew this but just forgot, as we all do. It’s liberating both to be helpful without knowing the answers and the humility that accompanies that. It’s respectful. Solutions come, better than my advice, often.

    Jeann: I think about it, as I wrote in the post, as the difference between offering encouragement and advice.


  • I am finding reading this post in conjunction with your recent one on why we lie quite thought-provoking! On the face of it, it seems you are suggesting that we ought not lie, but also that we ought to recognize we rarely have all the facts and thus shouldn’t express our opinions to others. Is that right? One can have opinions, but one needs to run them through the filter of “what we may not know.”

    These views strike me as similar to theories of the Greek sophists—with attendant risks and benefits. On the one hand, knowing that most people (and likely oneself) are unaware of the whole truth tends to increase tolerance of others and an openness to learning. On the other, it also permits the construction of possible explanations for things that remove them very far from what we regard as truth and also may excuse us from personal responsibility. (See https://ablemedia.com/ctcweb/netshots/sophists.htm for a brief discussion of Sophists.)

    To use an example from the Why We Lie post, suppose a friend asked if a particular dress made her look fat. From which context should our answer come? Our popular culture, the culture of most overweight Americans, or that of some other country? What if the friend is part of a group made up of very large people—should our answer be determined relative to her peers? Or what if we are heavier than she is and honestly believe (because we don’t want to acknowledge how heavy we are) that she looks fine? What if we say “yes,” causing the friend NOT to buy the dress, but it turns out it is a particular undergarment that has bunched up beneath the dress and not the dress itself that caused the friend to look chubby, she is demoralized and doesn’t go to an event where she might have had an epiphany that would change her life? On the other hand, she might be the sort of person who, receiving a “yes” answer, whips her life into shape and becomes happier as a result. And how do we know our answer is not colored by our own psychological agendas? Then, if you are a real glutton for punishment, add to this the notion that growth/wisdom only comes from suffering, and you have a prescription for paralysis!

    Well, you get my point, I’m sure. Questions of truth are subject both to the extent of one’s knowledge and one’s predisposition to self-deception, as well as beliefs about what the goal or purpose of life should be. Yet we almost never know what those things are in people who ask our opinions or of whom we ask opinions. So we have a two-headed dilemma: We don’t know what the Good—or Truth—is for other people much less ourselves, and we can’t know if refraining from offering our opinion is wise and compassionate, or merely a means to avoid taking responsibility. How do we proceed with right action? I am curious how you reconcile the issues raised in these two posts.

    rdp: Challenging questions as always! My answer: I actually didn’t suggest we never lie but rather that most of us lie for bad reasons (i.e., not out of an intent to be compassionate). And intent is the key. Certainly, because we don’t often have all or even enough information from which to make a sound judgment about things like lying, the consequences of our decisions can easily turn out opposite to what we intended. But as inaction is itself an action, we can only act with the best information we have hoping to create the most compassionate outcome possible. All the things you suggested might come into our decision-making process are certainly valid, which is why in two circumstances that look virtually identical we might choose opposite actions.

    I also didn’t suggest we not express our opinions to others but rather that we remain acutely aware of the limitations of our opinions. I often find myself saying things like, “Based on what I know today, I’d say…” If we’re just providing an opinion and have no decision-making responsibility, it’s certainly easier to have an opinion and express it without investigating the relevant facts. I was really arguing we should know the difference.


  • I have found that I no longer turn to my friends that I used to turn to for support and advice, for the very reason of their unwanted advice. Sometimes I just want to vent about my relationship. I don’t want people to tell me that the person I’m with isn’t good enough for me, that I could do better, or to tell me that I should dump the person and move on. It is so much easier said than done. It’s complicated and some people do not understand the complication. Sometimes when we feel like we are trying to help a friend with our advice, we just end up hurting them in the end, by making them feel that they don’t have a safe place to vent without being judged or “advised.”

    I know that I’ve been guilty of unsolicited advice in the past and I am becoming more mindful to keep from scratching that itch to give it.

    Who am I to think that I know better, when I am not that person and have no idea what they are really going through?

    Thanks, Dr. Lickerman. I really appreciated your thoughts on this.

  • I think your advice is great on the interpersonal skills, to be supportive without being directive. However on politics I think you’re dead wrong. A functioning democratic society requires people to make choices based on incomplete knowledge, without time to fully consider the issue, under the sway of competing interests. Its messy, its ugly, but it’s the best we’ve got.

    I’ve been thinking about the fall of Rome lately, and it seems we’re playing out the boom/bust cycle in a few decades instead of centuries. I wonder if their were Roman citizens back in the day telling their friends in those pre-blog days that the populace couldn’t possibly know the right way to manage the Roman colonies or the answer to any of the other pressing issues of the day; those in the Roman Senate who heard the full debate couldn’t agree on it, who was the public to think they knew better? And that led to an Emperor who *was* willing to make decisions.

    Your statement “most of us rarely (though obviously not always) have enough raw knowledge to be anything other than potentially dangerous” seems to me like moral cowardice. We may not know everything or as much as we want, but to actually claim that when the public makes decisions it can’t be anything but dangerous is to abdicate the most basic duty of a citizen to participate in the life of the community and state. It does give a certain convenience, though; if you refuse to decide and yet decisions must be made that necessarily means someone *else* is making them, so you’re relieved of any responsibility for adverse outcomes.

    Mike: Not sure how you got from my statement that “most of us rarely (though obviously not always) have enough raw knowledge to be anything other than potentially dangerous” means I think citizens should abdicate their duty to participate in the life of the community and state. In fact, I think because of that very duty citizens have a responsibility to educate themselves as much as they can. The point of my statement was actually that most don’t do this but instead allow the media to do their thinking for them. How many citizens really understand the full complexities and nuances of what caused the financial crisis and, more importantly, the best solutions? I’ve been studying it intensely and though I’m still struggling to fully understand it, it’s quite clear that the narrative the popular media is providing the public about what needs to be done and what is being done is extraordinarily deceptive. The amount of time we need to spend to really understand what happened and what solutions are likely to work is way beyond what most are willing to commit, especially considering most of them have no direct decision-making ability to affect it. But I’m in complete agreement with you that as messy as imperfect as our system is, we do have a responsibility to take some kind of action. All the more reason to investigate and educate ourselves as vigorously as possible. To be an effective, educated citizen takes a lot of time and energy. With respect to politics, I was trying to make the point we should take it.


  • It’s often that friends, family, coworkers and random people come to me and tell me their problems. I find that they are not really looking for advice or your opinion. What they really want is to be listened to, to feel supported, to vent and be allowed to feel their feelings. When I was younger I would offer advice and was judgmental at times. It’s different now: I just listen. Instead I offer my time, my ear and words of support, similar to what you gave your friend!

  • Alex. I have read your comment on the two nurses in Texas who are on trial for reporting a doctor for unsafe practice. I am a nurse practicing in this state and I have tried to go the conventional route by reporting two of the doctors who killed my husband by failing to provide the basic standard of care to The Texas Medical Board. Yep, The Texas Medical Board who is supposed to monitor and make sure patient care in Texas is safe. Well Alex, it is nothing but a “Good Ole Boys Club.” Medical records show he did not receive any care, nada, zippo, zero. And yet, and yet, the investigator found nothing wrong. Now if this does not make someone go postal, I do not know what would. I am watching very very closely what the outcome of the trial will be for those two nurses because this will change nursing as we know it. Patient’s will be at risk and there will not be any accountability.

    Cilla: Though of course I’m only hearing your side of your story, that kind of thing makes my blood boil. There has without doubt been a conspiracy of silence that continues, and not just in Texas obviously, to protect doctors who are incompetent or lazy, two sins that in my view require correction or expulsion from the field. My point in making the NYTimes comment, as I hope you understood, was that we the public, at this point, should be cautious in holding our immediate judgments about this story—or any story—too strongly until or unless we have sufficient facts. Two sides to every story, however, doesn’t mean no one is ever in the wrong. And when the system in place to mete out justice is corrupt—well, that’s an entirely different issue that also makes my blood boil. I, too, worry about the implications this case has for nursing and medicine throughout the country and consider the idea of criminal charges against the Texas nurses—based on the facts I’ve heard so far—utterly ludicrous. My sincere condolences on the death of your husband.


  • I think there’s a skill that people are talking around, which is reflective listening. It’s a way to be supportive of people without telling them what to do. There are drawbacks to it—when someone is unhappy or otherwise “stuck,” an outside point of view is more helpful than being stuck with them. Unfortunately, the majority of my friends run towards giving advice or refusing to comment, where it’s possible to be helpful by saying things like, “You’ve been talking about this problem over a few months, and it hasn’t improved. What can you do differently?” Or helping someone let go of an unrealistic goal, like the perfect SO. We don’t know better, but we can have a useful perspective to share, if done the right way.

    I was thinking about that distinction, between acting like “I know better” and just encouragement, and I was struck by a comment on another blog about “intentional stance.” That phrase refers to whether someone is threatening or benign, and I think that gets at it well. I react badly to someone who gives me advice that feels threatening—basically telling me that my choices, my viewpoint, who I am and what matters to me, is wrong—and I react more openly to someone who is benign. This is where it’s helpful not to attack every problem like a lion—if you’re dealing with people and you want to change them, being that ant does not engender trust.

    RG: I think the importance of your point about reflective listening can’t be overstated. And regarding not attacking every problem like a lion, I’d continue to argue we should but that the key is to know which problems to attack in the first place. If your goal is to move someone else in the particular direction of your choosing, you might want to revisit that as a goal (as opposed to having the goal of supporting their growth in whatever direction is best for it to take).


  • In addition to compassionate listening, we can helpfully pose the reporter’s questions: “Why do you think this?” “Who would benefit?” Why, when, where…in order to help someone reify their position.

    Because most of us act out of emotion, vs. rationality, and as a disinterested listener we can give that valuable perspective, sans judgment.

  • Alex, I didn’t see your comments about the nurses in Texas. Can you provide a link, please?

    Helen: See comment #21 on the NYTimes “Well” blog.


  • I found your comment about the nurses. One thing that scares me about the case is that the complaint was sent anonymously but yet authorities were able to determine who the nurses were by looking at their computers. Where does privacy protection come in?

    Helen: Actually, there must be more to the story. How did the sheriff know to target those two nurses’ computers in the first place if their identities remained unknown to him (presuming the medical board didn’t disclose them). Did the doctor think these two particular nurses had it out for him? What was the probable cause that led to the warrant that gave the sheriff access to those particular nurses’ computers?


  • A wonderful reminder of the importance of compassionate listening and circumspect responses.

    It took me a long time to absorb this lesson and I have to almost constantly bite my tongue still. Because I don’t just think I know what is best for people, I KNOW I know what’s best for people. lol. It was many years before I learned the value of keeping my mouth shut. I hope it makes me a better friend, or at least a safer one.

  • I gave some college advice to my younger brother a few years back, and just recently we had a candid conversation where he told me he let me spout my advice because he figured I needed to. He’s a good brother.

  • I side with Mike. For me, it is very clear cut that I should never encourage someone to divorce. It’s very easy to speak negatively. It’s hard to be encouraging. It’s very easy to give up on a relationship. It’s hard to work on a relationship during difficult times. I wouldn’t encourage someone in an abusive relationship to stick with it, but that has rarely been the case with my friends.

    I was in a relationship that was very unhappy and a friend encouraged me to break it up. In the end, I believe my former boyfriend and I are happier apart, but I also determined that I never want to be the person giving advice to break up.

    That being said, I don’t think that I have an equivalent moral obligation to withhold my opinions about OJ Simpson or health care in America. But can I then complain that the political climate in America is so divisive that we can never accomplish anything?

  • Alex,
    I don’t know how you find time to maintain this blog, to offer this dialogue, but good for you and thank you for doing it. I think it is a very valuable offering to your community. Thank you.


    Dewey: I really appreciate you saying so.


  • Thank you for this insight and thank you, Liana. You have reminded me of my role as mother…to be a listener rather than a constant advisor. My daughter is unfortunately going through a very unhappy breakup of a more than 25 year relationship. With two teen age daughters at home, being in the company of great dissension.

    Although thousands of miles separate us…she has been speaking to me almost daily and I have been “freely” giving both advice and comments on her responsibilities etc. Reading this wonderful reminder…has made be re-think the role I have “allowed” myself to play.

    While I have been instrumental in convincing my daughter to get professional help, (having had many years of therapy myself) I realize that her need to share and my need to advise, are perhaps more a hindrance than a help. These comments have opened my mind to reconsider the role of parent/friend and to be more cautious in my responses. Everyday I learn something. Sometimes, it is simply “re-learning” and applying what I already knew, but had forgotten how to use the information in the positive way.

    Thank you again.