“Help” Is a Four-Letter Word

There is helpful help, and then there is unhelpful “help.” Far too much help seems to fall into the latter category, and when someone “helps” — when it’s not asked for, when it presupposes too many incorrect assumptions, and when the relationship is not fair and equitable — the social fabric breaks down and trust is destroyed.

You know you’re experiencing “help” when, after sharing a difficult problem with someone, their response starts with “You should…” or “Why don’t you just…”

“You should just tell them what’s on your mind…”
“You should totally read this book…”
“Why don’t you just try this program…”

I call this “shoulding” on people. You’ve probably seen it happen with colleagues, bosses, and friends. They listen to a few words you’ve said, quickly categorize the problem, and immediately arrive at a simplistic answer that doesn’t really, well, help.

If you’re in a committed relationship, you’ve probably found yourself doing this to your partner at one point or another. I know I certainly have. It is distinctly not helpful.

When you get feedback that it’s not helping, you’ll be tempted to start arguing for why your suggestion makes sense. But now you are not only “shoulding” on someone, but also refusing to take “no” for an answer.

This is how “help” turns into a four-letter word.

So what is help, really? And what does it need to be?

Edgar Schein, in his book “Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help,” says that help occurs when you enable another person to:

  1. solve a problem,
  2. accomplish something, or
  3. make something easier or able to be done at all.

He notes that for help to be helpful, the reciprocal process of communication between two parties must be, or at least seem to be, fair and equitable.

It’s good to be aware of the power dynamics in any relationship, but especially in a helping relationship. The helper often starts out by playing the role of “doctor,” diagnosing an issue and then prescribing a solution, but it’s usually not what’s needed. Schein describes how this default interaction implies a context of a superior and an inferior participant. One person has all the answers, after all.

Without an experience of fairness and equitability, trust can’t be built. And without trust, I would argue, a helper has no place diagnosing, prescribing, or otherwise telling someone else what to do.

What’s the alternative, then? Schein proposes something called “pure inquiry.”

Pure inquiry begins with silence, body language, and eye contact that communicates a readiness to listen. It may include a prompt, such as, “Tell me more…” or “What happened next?” This style of inquiry allows the person being helped to build status and confidence in a safe environment for sharing, all while enabling you, the helper, to gather as much information as possible. Importantly, the other person gets to have agency and be directly involved in the process.

Other kinds of inquiry, such as diagnostic inquiry or confrontational inquiry, may be appropriate at a later time, but for now they remain on the sidelines. These other modes can be helpful, but they involve risk to the relationship and therefore require trust. In a helping relationship they are the exception, not the rule.

Failures happen. I’ve had my fair share of circumstances where I’ve been too quick to “help,” and I’m sure you have as well. Most failures don’t end relationships, but they can quickly erode trust. What’s important is how you approach that failure. Schein points at two critical aspects to learning after failure:

  1. Gaining data about ourselves and what we might have done differently, and
  2. Gaining data about how the other person thinks and what they’re ready for.

In my case, I almost always find that I could slow down, listen more carefully, and ask more thoughtful questions. It’s a difficult standard to meet, but it’s one we should all be continually striving for in our helping conversations.

Two final points worth considering carefully:

  1. Learn to recognize when you’re “helping” — diagnosing and prescribing instead of listening, and
  2. Deliberately start your helping interactions from a place of pure inquiry by default, and stay there until trust has been built and it’s clear another approach is appropriate.

Prescribe less, and listen more; “help” doesn’t have to be a four-letter word.

(Big thanks to Jabe for suggesting the Schein book. It was a worthwhile read.)


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