The Right Way to Help
FRONT OF THE ROOM – Brian Lange
“Those who are happiest are those who do the most for others.” — Booker T.
Helping is a big component of what we do as facilitators. I’ve often suggested we consider a mindset of “assisting an audience in the exploration of a topic.” However, a recent article reminded me of the caution we should apply when about to engage in some “helping.”
“How to Help (Without Micromanaging)” in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Harvard Business Review noted that, “People have strong negative emotional and physiological reactions to unnecessary or unwanted help and that it can erode interpersonal relationships.”
Wait—WHAT? I thought “helping” was a way to leverage our experience and shorten the learning curve for others. Turns out, we may need to dial back our enthusiasm just a bit. Apparently, our folks need to know we’re “willing to offer help — and they must feel comfortable asking for it.” The article suggested that we
“watch and listen” until our people “see the need for help and are ready to listen.”
In my explorations, research and experimentations over the years, I have come to have tremendous respect for the concept and impact of ownership. That’s the sense that a person has some control, or sway, over a given situation: Their fingerprints are somehow present in the moment. The problem with helping someone is that too often the other person does not have ownership in wanting to receive our help. So, what to do?
The ideal scenario leads to the person potentially needing help asking for it. When the other person asks for something, they definitely have ownership in wanting the help — they’ve “hired” us for our input. If the other doesn’t ask for the help, we can still seek to “get hired” by asking questions such as, “How can I help?” or “What can I contribute?” or “What would you like from me?” This helps to establish role clarity — and the other has ownership in defining the desired help.
Often, we teach content around this that highlights the idea of seeking a “green light” before jumping in to help. If you think of the knowledge and experience that you’ve spent a lifetime developing — and view it as an asset — you start to become more protective and judicious in doling out those hard-won insights. So, a way to view this is to challenge yourself to not share your knowledge or experience unless you have received a green light from the other to share.
The HBR article highlighted how important it is to clarify our role when helping (“… to help, not to judge or take over”) and that we should seek to foster what Harvard professor Amy Edmondson calls “psychological safety” — an environment in which people are comfortable being vulnerable.
When we seek to ensure we have a green light before sharing advice, tips, etc., we have a better chance of the other person being in the best position possible to actually hear — and potentially act upon — our counsel.
So, while the desire is often strong among facilitators to want to help our learners, it would be wise for us to pause and ensure the other person has ownership in wanting our input. Once we’ve been hired, we likely will have a much more receptive and engaged recipient for our hard-earned knowledge and experience.
Brian Lange is with Perim Consulting and serves as lead facilitator for LTEN PrimeTime! For Trainers Core and Masters Workshops. Email Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org.