When is Helping Helpful?

Bad things happen to good people. When those bad things are happening to someone you care about, it’s natural to want to help. You want to do something, so you offer advice.  However, sometimes your well-intentioned, extremely helpful, or even brilliant advice is ignored, rejected, or results in exactly the opposite behaviour that you expected. Why? And what might you do that would be better?

Let’s consider the situation of Larry, who is unhappy at his dead-end job. All he does is complain about his work, his stupid boss, and his lazy co-workers. Even on the weekends, instead of relaxing and enjoying his time away from the job, he continues to criticize, rant, and complain. He threatens to quit, but never takes any action toward making a change.

As someone close to Larry, it might be obvious to you what he “should” be doing. And as someone who cares deeply for him, you may feel that you must tell him: “Stop complaining, stand up for yourself, start looking at job ads, work on your resume….”

However, you’ve found that when you offer helpful advice based on your knowledge and experience, not only does Larry not appreciate it, but he becomes exasperated, depressed, or even resentful toward you! It’s so easy for you to see what he should do. Why doesn’t he just listen to you and do it?

Here are five near-magical words you might try before you offer advice of any kind.  They are,

Would you like a suggestion?”

Why would you ask that? If Larry says, “Yes,” then he has not only given permission; he is now actively engaged in listening to what you are about to say. He’s thought about it and said (to himself) “Maybe I could use some input!” Now Larry will be more open and receptive to what you’re about to say.

But, what if his answer is no?? It might be painful for you, but now you know—Larry doesn’t want your advice. And if he doesn’t, (even if you are absolutely sure that you know what’s best for him), then just let it go. You can follow up with, “If you ever do want a suggestion, just ask.” Otherwise, though, let it go. Forcing your advice on someone is not going to be helpful, and it may even be damaging.

Damaging? How? Your relationship with Larry may be the most important thing that you can offer him. We can get through a lot of difficulty when we have a friend—at least one good, solid relationship in our lives. And although it might be painful for you to keep your brilliant problem-solving strategies unspoken, that won’t ultimately be as painful as if you make your relationship with Larry conditional on his accepting your advice.

If Larry doesn’t want it, your advice may indeed switch his focus away from his unhappiness, depressing, or anxietying. However, that focus away from the actual problem is now directed toward you—the friend who doesn’t understand how difficult or impossible the situation is. And that’s simply not helpful.

So when trying to help, consider what you do have and what is already right with the situation, rather than focusing only on what is going poorly. If you already have a good relationship, be careful to avoid damaging it by concentrating only on the pieces that are missing or imperfect.

What might you suggest when Larry says, “Yes, I want a suggestion”? A helpful structure is the WDEP model. That is, ask Larry to think about what he Wants, what he is now Doing, how it’s working (self-Evaluating), and together, you may be able to come up with a Plan.

For example, Larry might help his situation by doing some thinking about what he really wants. His basic survival need may be his focus now; he may feel he needs this job simply to put food on his table and a roof over his head. Valid concerns! However, the more anxious, hostile, or depressed he gets, the harder it will be for Larry to either get along successfully in his present job, or to present a capable, enthusiastic face to a different employer.

So does Larry want a different job? Or does he want the job he has, but with a promotion or other change?  Effective decisions and actions for Larry will follow from his own understanding about what he wants. And if he chooses to ask for your suggestions, your most helpful starting point might be to encourage him to think about his wants and go from there.

Would you like to try it out for yourself? The next time you feel the urge to tell someone what they “should” be doing, precede your comment with “Would you like a suggestion?” See what happens.

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