I have lots of opinions. About pretty much everything. Most of the opinions I so confidently hold are on subjects that are actually well beyond my competency. For instance, I don’t have a medical degree. I have no geo-political experience. I’ve never played professional sports or been a referee. I’ve never been the Pope. And yet, opinions bounteously flow from me on all of the above topics. I have so many thoughts and am so desperate to share them.
The problem is, sometimes I’m wrong and I have no clue what I’m talking about. Over the years, I’ve freely offered unwanted advice to others, judged them in my mind, or outright gossiped about their decisions. I’ve had the opinion – also wrong, of course – that if I could simply run the world and help everyone make decisions, everything would be perfect.
This is why, for the past decade or so, I’ve been actively practicing the fine art of being quiet. It was time to stop giving unsolicited advice and blurt out opinions — a tiresome habit that needed to disappear.
Further, I came to realize that I don’t need to run to social media and furiously share my uneducated thoughts about every current event in the world. The fewer of my opinions that are floating around in the world, the better the place will be.
The big revelation — the aha moment — was the realization that I always have the option of not forming an opinion. I don’t need a response to absolutely everything. I don’t have to pretend to have an answer, or talk just to hear myself talk. People aren’t begging for my wise judgment so they can finally understand how to live their lives. I can leave it alone and the world continues to spin just fine.
There are a few basic revelations that helped me understand better the virtue of expressing fewer opinions.
I’m often wrong
I’ve always been bad at group work because I’ve never had the patience to listen to anyone else. I form opinions quickly and tend to hold onto the misconception that my way is the only way. Looking back over the years, though, I notice that many of my strongly held opinions from the past have drastically changed. Why? Because I was wrong. I never would have admitted it at the time, though, so I wasted years continuing to be wrong.
Maybe it was toiling in frustration because I thought my boss’s way was incorrect, or a political opinion that turned out to be totally false, or a strongly-held religious commitment that was narrow and hasty. I’ve also been wrong plenty of times about smaller matters like the healthiest food to eat, the best way to raise children, or how to handle simple inter-personal issues.
Often, I don’t even have all the relevant information to form an opinion, let alone share it. At the very least, it has turned out that there are multiple ways to live our lives and make decisions — and they’re all fine. It was never worth blurting out my opinion and holding it so strongly.
Even if I’m right, people don’t need to hear about it
There’s something about being offered unsolicited advice that’s off-putting — particularly if the advice is offered with an air of superiority from a person who hasn’t earned the required trust.
When a friend confides about a difficult situation, my first instinct used to be to jump in and try to fix it by telling them what to do or how to think. I now know that this was a feature of my personality that was annoying. Most of us don’t communicate with our friends because we want to then be told what to do. We share because we’re looking for empathy and support. So now, I only offer advice if someone specifically asks for it and I always preface it by reminding them how wrong I may be.
I practice detachment
This is why I now practice detachment from my opinions. I hold them lightly and modify them quickly when new information comes to light. Proper detachment doesn’t mean ceasing to care. It isn’t the same as apathy. Rather, it means keeping a healthy distance from anything that takes on disproportionate importance, including personal opinions. If, in the past, my identity has been built around being a person who thinks he always has the correct opinion to share, that’s not good. I would much rather build my identity around being a friend who is kind and supportive.
It’s time to leave ego behind
I’ve asked myself exactly why my personal opinions are so precious to me. The only possible explanation isn’t flattering – it’s because they boost my ego. The one doing the advising is, allegedly, the one with superior insight. I’ve preferred to be the one doing the advising because it has helped me avoid my own shortcomings and maintain a sense of control. I would meddle and weigh in other people’s business, which made me feel good. It was a way to feel like I was in charge.
But of course, all this opinionated advice-giving slowly cannibalizes relationships and creates an ongoing sense of personal discontent. It’s a way of placing the blame on everyone else. There are many virtues in the world other than accurate opinions that are important – peace-making, acceptance, compromise, humility, prudence, and most of all, love. Here’s the secret that I’ve come to understand: If I talk less, I listen more. The more I listen, the more I learn, and the more accurate my opinions become. I think. I still have a lot of learning and listening to do.