I saw a great cartoon earlier this year, providing perspective on the different effort expended by parents in “running the house.” As the spouse of a stay-at-home parent, I quickly saw myself in the parent who does much less and yet protests “but I help…” Everyone who has come into contact with me and my husband knows one well-established fact: I carry very little of the administrative burden of our home, sitting back content in the certainty that the vast majority of everyday tasks will just happen. I help, but not nearly enough.
As my brain wandered to what I could do to balance my ‘at home’ scales I pondered a bigger question: If I truly want to help, why am I not helping more?
In my experience, most people are ready and eager to help. Personally, I have one of the strongest and most supportive networks, filled with people who I know will help without hesitation if I asked. In the last month I’ve faced some challenges that I never anticipated — at home and at work — and at some point or another every person that I consider important to me has offered help. But, even with that help offered I haven’t done a great job of turning their eagerness into action, instead sending them away with the throwaway, “Thank you for the offer, I’ll let you know when there is something that you can do.”
And then I don’t call them because I don’t have a clue what they can do.
Here’s the problem, when I’m buried in work or a complex project, it feels like I’m a drowning swimmer two feet over my head and wildly flailing my arms. Although I look cool and calm as a cucumber on the outside — years of practice — inside I’m in panic mode, my body frantically trying to stay above the water. My brain is focusing on only one thing: do not drown. And, it is in that very moment that someone shows up in a boat, pulls up along side me, and asks, “How can I help?”
Now in a calmer moment I could absolutely assess the right next steps and ask them for a rope, a buoy, a life jacket — anything that would prevent me from sinking to oblivion. But with my brain fully focused on the immediate need of not drowning, I can’t. Instead I say something stupid like, “Nothing right now, I’ll let you know.”
The boat pulls away leaving two people no better for the moment of connection.
We’ve all been there, stuck on one side or another of a failed help conversation. Sometimes we’re the swimmer, sometimes we’re the boat. No matter which side we’re on, every single moment when it happens feeling inherently unsatisfying.
As I think through when help has worked and when it hasn’t the first thing that comes to mind is the power of specific help instead of generic help. Imagine if the person on the boat didn’t ask, “How can I help?” and instead said, “I’m throwing you a life ring, grab it.” It takes a lot less mental gymnastics to understand a command and respond than to run through a laundry list of possibilities and pick the one right-sized task out of 100’s. Faced with simply clarity of action, most people can accept offered help and support.
And that would work great except that I’ve seen the direct approach fail as well. Sometimes, declarative help comes in the form of an unwanted casserole or a push down an unwelcome path. There have been times when I’ve rushed into a situation with the very best intentions of helping only to harm, either by identifying the wrong solution or simply by stealing the person’s self-determination.
So what the heck is the helpful person to do?
It seems to me that the right answer is to spend more time listening and less time acting. In the cases when I have helped the most, it is because I have taken the time to listen to the person struggling so I can hear in their story and identify places where they might need help. With reflective listening and good questions, it is possible to let the person share what they choose about the situation and once more is learned, I can offer the better things. Recently, I was talking to someone and learned they no longer felt comfortable driving at night because of vision loss. Later that week we were heading together to the same event. Armed with my new intel, I was able to ask, “Would it be helpful to you if I drove?” My offer of help was specific, targeted, and still something that could be refused. It was imminently better than the open ended, “What can I do?’
I’ve found that the same technique works when someone does offer generic help. Lately I was feeling overwhelmed with a big task. Instead of going into my struggle cave, I took the time to walk a colleague through the challenges and big steps. He asked questions and together we broke the work down, eventually identifying a couple of building block items that could be easily delegated. Once I could see those tasks, I asked if he could own those and of course he said yes.
In both cases, both the helper and the helped felt exceedingly better than if we had stalled, without help.
And that’s the hard thing, really. Everyone understand that finding yourself alone and without help is isolating and horrible, but it can be just as difficult to be surrounded by help and not know how to activate it or to want to give help and not know how to do it. Our real opportunity is to find better ways to channel good will to good action, to turn possibility into outcomes.
I don’t have all of the answers, but it seems to me that when you start with listening you have a chance to get there. When we build real empathy and understanding and we tie that tightly to empowerment we can keep everyone above the water line. By simply defining intent and offering options we can create the kind of help that benefits our friends and family. The words may seem simple — “I want to help you. Would this help you?” — but the power is immense. They may accept or not, but either way we can take a concrete step closer to doing something.
And the right something is better than nothing.