Tea Lady

Tea Lady

Tea lady




“We give advice, but we cannot give the wisdom to profit by it.”

~ Francois de La Rochefoucauld


I generally “bump” into topics for this blog. Or they bump into me. Either way, I’m happy to follow the path that serendipity chooses for me.

Today I’ve bumped into some thoughts about experts and expertise.

For some reason, folks seem drawn to the expert, and compelled to seek their wisdom. I observe many folks regularly seeking advice in the earnest belief that they will act on and benefit from such advice. Which, of course, almost never happens.

“Hakuin used to tell his pupils about an old woman who had a teashop, and praising her understanding of Zen. The pupils refused to believe what he told them and would go to the teashop to find out for themselves.

Whenever the woman saw them coming she could tell at once whether they had come for tea or to look into her grasp of Zen. In the former case, she would server them graciously. In the latter, she would beckon to the pupils to come behind her screen. The instant they obeyed, she would strike them with a fire-poker.

Nine out of ten of them could not escape her beating.”

~ A Zen Koan

I often find myself being seen by clients as some kind of expert. This generally bothers me greatly. For one thing I’ve seen the harm that can come from folks delegating their thinking to so-called experts. Yes, it can be comforting to have someone else do your thinking for you – God knows, thinking is hard. And there’s the added comfort of having someone lined-up to take the blame if, later, that thinking turns out to be flawed.

And then there’s the additional energy I find myself putting into guarding against my natural inclination towards trying to help through giving advice – even when in my heart I believe that any giving of advice is not in my clients’ best interests. I find it particularly difficult when folks ask directly for advice. Then, it can seem so churlish to demur, so patronising to launch into some more or less convoluted semi-dialogue about the perils of advice-giving. And so dissonant to advise on the perils of advice-seeking.

“The ONLY learning which significantly influences behaviour is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning.”

~ Carl Rogers

Feeding the ego troll also bothers me. I find it flattering when folks look up to me in some way – for my knowledge or experience or insights or whatever. Flattering, and rewarding, in that it meets my need to feel that I’m helping, making a positive difference for them. Bothersome, then, to feel each time it happens, that this is an illusion. For even slight reflection leads me to sense that by being recognised as an expert, I’m helping less, and making less of a difference, than could otherwise be the case. Approbation tastes sooooo sweet, yet simultaneously feels so bitter.

I’m hoping some current and future clients might get to read this. If for no other reason than it might provide an insight into just one of the many struggles that their therapist is also going through. And thus, perhaps, offer some opportunity for fellow-feeling, even empathy.

We’re all human after all.

“This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle; we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him nor help his lower self.”

~ Ian MacLaren

I’d love to hear about your feelings on the subject.

– Bob

  1. beelore said:

    The ancient Masters
    didn’t try to educate people,
    but kindly taught them to not-know.

    When they think that they know the answers,
    people are difficult to guide.
    When they know that they don’t know,
    people can find their own way.

    If you want to learn how to govern,
    avoid being clever or rich.
    The simplest pattern is the clearest.
    Content with an ordinary life,
    you can show all the people the way
    back to their own true nature.

    p 65 of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
    translated by Stephen Mitchell

  2. Paul Field said:

    Thanks Bob – your words eloquently express how I also feel about being seen as an expert. Particularly “guarding against my natural inclination towards trying to help through giving advice”.

    I’ve had several conversations where someone asked me to advise them on a situation and I’ve talked them through all kinds of concepts, anecdotes, ideas and the conversation has been full of energy and exciting and yet afterwards I’ve come away and wondered if anything was actually going to change. I rarely have evidence that it has.

    On the other hand I’ve had many conversations where I’ve kept my “telling” to myself and asked as many thought-provoking questions as I can in service of the person and what they asked for help with. Those conversations are harder, they require me to actually *use* my expertise to help the other person think and realise some new insight or learning for themselves. And afterwards, when it goes well, I come away knowing that something, however small, has changed for that person. Those are the times where I often get a follow-up – sometimes to say that something in the conversation was meaningful or important to them and sometimes to say that the person is now doing something different that they feel is better for them.

    Although the first is exciting in the moment, the second has a deeper satisfaction and it’s those conversations that I remember and cherish for myself. Those thought-provoking conversations meet my needs much better, so thank you for talking about your own struggle and giving us the chance to share some fellow-feeling.

    – Paul

    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I feel much fellow-feeling knowing I’m not the only one conscious of and struggling with these issues.

      – Bob

  3. Emily said:

    Sometimes, people genuinely need advice.

    • I’m not so sure. A (relatively) ineffective strategy for getting some deeper need(s) met?

      Just because folks believe they need something, does not make it so.

      – Bob

  4. Paul Beckford said:

    I am my own guru… I am my own master… This is true for all of us… we are all capable of finding the answers we need within ourselves… even when our answer is to seek advice from someone else…

    The trouble most of us face is locating that place within where our answers lie… It is a quiet place, still and peaceful. Yet, for most, this place is remote and distant from their day to day lives.

    Work for most is a noisy place, full of distractions, challenges and threats… The world of work is dominated by fear… Fear of not being good enough, the fear of being judged by others and not found worthy… The fear of lost.

    For me the most important quality for learning in the workplace is courage… a quality we don’t speak much of. Without courage fear can take over… and our inner peace is lost to us…

    The courageous will find their answers, the timid will not… Not so much to do with the teacher I think, … more to do with the resolve of the pupil.


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