Monday, May 11, 2009


One of the major lessons we learn in Al-Anon is: don't give advice. Don't tell other people what they "should" do about their problems. This was a major challenge for me - I was a control freak, I loved to tell other people what to do. The idea that I could be a warm and welcoming presence for another human being, just through active listening, and offering what had worked for me in that situation, (or what hadn't, sometimes that's even more useful) was perplexing to me. How could I be helpful if I didn't give advice? Wasn't that what a sponsee, or a fellow program member, was wanting?

No. Most decidedly not. And even in the odd instance when that may be the case, when someone is asking us to tell them what to do, it's even more imperative that we refrain. Giving advice gets in the way of that person's life lessons.

I had learned to listen when I worked on a crisis line, it just hadn't occured to me that this was a transferrable skill. (I was a very rigid individual when I joined 12-step - my life was very much marked out into sections, with little or no movement between the various compartments, and with my behavior being disparate, according to which section I happened to be in at the moment. Work. Social life. Home life. 3 dissimilar personas, same despondant person.)

For many of us, we have nowhere else in our lives where we can speak of our troubles, concerns, confusions, and not be swamped with "you should do..." from the listener. We need one safe place in which to be heard.

Now, this does not mean that our fellow program members, or our sponsors, are duty-bound to listen while we complain, whine, commit character assassination upon the alcoholic, or any other of the self-absorbed, self-pitying indulgences of which we may have become fond. My first sponsor would only listen to a very little of the above sort of thing, before stopping me to suggest, gently, or sharply, as the case demanded, that I turn my attention away from those negative pursuits, to that which might actually be of some use to me - working my program. She offended me mightily and often in the early days of my Al-Anon journey, but she had what I so desperately sought - peace of mind. Serenity. So I listened, albeit bristling with hurt feelings, and harrumphing not-quite-silently to myself. The woman was maddening, she wouldn't just tell me what to do. (That's what I thought I was going to receive, when I first attended meetings - instructions. Do this, and the alcoholic will quit drinking.)

I learned that when I was sincerely working out a problem, or trying to assimilate a new idea, my sponsor had endless patience. She gave me the precious gift of listening. I pass that on, in the time-honoured manner of 12-step - I give back, what I was, and am, so grateful to have received. I listen. I don't give advice. I offer my experience, strength, and hope.


  1. Thank you for this post. I am just newly with a sponsor and not quite sure what I'm suppose to do with her. (But she sure seems to know exactly what to do with me!)
    She has me working the questions in the back of the First Step in "Paths to Recovery". When I answered the questions I was full of self-pity, self-absorbsion and as you say "character assassination on the Alcoholic" (great analogy!)
    She listened...but if I started getting into to much of a story...she would stop me and tell me to stay on task with "my own recovery!"
    I wasn't to excited about this...I wanted to vent....I wanted pity (even though it bothers me to admit this) I didn't understand why she wouldn't hear me out!! Slander with me!
    Thank you again for this post.....Reading this in your words makes me understand why It's so important to stay on "Me"!

  2. I am a good listener. In fact, I'd rather do that than talk. My sponsor is the opposite. There are moments when he just talks and talks. He was a major control freak (self-admitted). I gently remind him some times that I don't need quite as much lecturing. He and I have that type of relationship--thank goodness.