A recent article at WeWork, entitled “One Founder’s Best Productivity Trick: Save Time and Do Less”, asks its readers if they say “No” to the many requests they get during their work day that are not necessarily part of the job. Author Alex Cavoulacos writes, “Most people have a deep need to be liked. As a result, we say yes to almost everything that’s asked of us, which makes it impossible to do everything well, and zaps our time and productivity.”
I couldn’t agree more! Whether it’s the conditioning we received growing up or a need to feel good about ourselves, many of us err on the side of excess when it comes to helping others. While it is laudable to rise to the occasion when someone is in genuine physical danger or deep emotional distress, there are reasons to pause before helping under ordinary circumstances. Consider the following before you help:
1. Is your help actually needed? Often, helping is such a knee-jerk response that we don’t stop to ask ourselves if we are truly needed in the situation. Sometimes, because we think we have the answer for a friend, partner, son or daughter, we give advice even when it’s not requested, or we offer to “fix” the problem. Even if our friend wants our help, they may not need it. Ask yourself before you help if you’re supporting a victim perspective.
In my early 30s, I was sitting in my kitchen with a friend, having a coffee, when I heard a loud pop from the back of my stove. Newly separated, and used to asking for a man’s assistance, I called a male friend to come over and see what the problem was. My wise friend said he’d be over in an hour, during which time I was to pull the stove out and figure it out myself. At the time, I was upset that he wouldn’t just fix it for me, but I pulled out the stove and quickly saw that a coupling unit holding several wires had overheated and melted. I went to the store, bought a ceramic one, stripped the wires, and installed the unit before my friend arrived. My anger at having to do it on my own turned into confidence that I could figure out small mechanical details without assistance, which led me to try my hand at other minor repairs that I would previously ask a partner to do for me.
My dear friend was willing to incur my anger so I could believe in myself. That was clearly of greater assistance in building my confidence than if he had come to the rescue.
2. Why do you want to help? We like to be liked. Our people-pleasing personalities tend to kick in when our help is requested. If we’ve been raised to “do the right thing” and “always help out”, we may not even question our actions. Yet, it’s knowing our underlying motives that can save us a lot of grief. Not everyone is grateful for our assistance. If we are attached to being liked, we may be disappointed when we are taken for granted. Ask yourself before you help if you truly have the time and energy, and if your motives are altruistic. If you can honestly say that there is no hook attached, that you aren’t looking to be liked or to receive a favour in return, that you don’t need to help in order to see yourself as a good person, then it’s likely that you’re coming from the right place. Help only if it feels appropriate. If you’re at all resentful or over-attached to helping, don’t.
3. Are you taking someone else’s place? This is where your intuition kicks in. Sometimes, it’s just not our turn to help. Check in with your sixth sense before you jump in. If you don’t feel at ease physically with helping someone, then trust that it’s not your turn and have the courage to say “No”.
One evening, I received a phone call from a friend asking me to meet him to talk about a problem that was bothering him. I noticed tension in my stomach when I thought of meeting him (unlike other occasions, when it had felt right to do so). I told him, “I don’t sense that I’m the person you are meant to speak to tonight.” He accepted my response, and we ended the call. The next morning, he called to tell me that an hour after we spoke, he went downtown to his favourite pub, and a friend walked in with whom he spent the rest of the evening talking. He got the help he needed from the person meant to meet him that night.
There is a pattern and an order to the universe. If you listen to your intuition, you will be in the right place at the right time, but it might not meet others’ immediate expectations.
4. Are you helping just to silence a complainer? Some folks create external tension so they don’t have to face their internal angst. They do this through complaining.
We all know the complainers, because no matter what solution you offer, they are sure it won’t work, or they tried it and it didn’t work. Exasperated listeners may help in order to stop the never-ending litany of gripes. This does not, however, address the pattern of complaint. It only reinforces the belief for the complainer that they cannot resolve their own problems.
Instead, we can briefly empathize and then respond with a question: “What’s your plan to resolve this?” or “What do you think your next step is?” Ask in a friendly and interested tone that imparts to the complainer your belief that they are quite capable of resolving the matter themselves. This may anger the complainer if their next step was to simply issue more complaints until someone fixes it for them. Accept that possibility if you are going to try this method. You will not be liked for turning the onus back on the complainer, but it will be more empowering than supporting their victimhood.
Another approach is simply a vote of confidence. You might say, “I know you’re going through a difficult time, but I have complete confidence that you will find a solution.” This response won’t make you popular, but a shift will occur. The complainer will either start to work on the problem themselves, or they’ll find someone else to talk to about their problems. If there is a shift toward self-actualization, then you can re-evaluate whether it’s appropriate to help someone who is willing to help themselves.
5. Are you helping too much? Sometimes, the appropriate assistance we offer becomes excessive over time. Check in with yourself if you’re part of a team, but you’re doing most of the work. If the friend you offered to help temporarily is now relying on you extensively, look for ways to empower that person or have a candid discussion about the amount of help you feel is appropriate to expect from you. These types of discussion are usually uncomfortable, but personal growth generally is.
In the end, if you’ve stayed mindful about when and how to offer assistance, with the intent to empower the other person whenever possible, and checking your ego for attachment to rescuing others, you’ll likely be providing assistance in a balanced and appropriate manner. As a result, you’ll make better use of your time, and have the energy and focus to be of greater help when it’s actually needed.