The best way to help


There is a nasty long-standing myth that does a lot of harm to humanity. It has destroyed careers, and it’s made the very people who are there to support a leader feel very, very small. If you are a human, you’re familiar with the myth and may even had a starring role in it.

The myth is that to truly help others, we must give advice and tell them everything we know.

The consequences of the myth

I was the subject of this sort of “help” in a small way recently and it reminded me that when someone does this, it can make me feel “less than” if I let it. Luckily, I knew enough about the myth to not allow it to pull me down for long.

Here is a conversation that happened in a local wine shop:

Me: “Can you please help me to find the organic sulfite-free reds?”

Clerk: “Sure, but you should be aware that red wine can never be sulfite-free“.

Me: “Thank you. I knew that, and didn’t mean to use the term ‘sulfite-free’; I should have asked for the location of your wines with no additional sulfites added.”

Clerk: “Most wine producers add additional sulfites to preserve the wine and there isn’t any proof that the additional sulfites cause problems for most people…..etc., etc., blah, blah…..”

As he droned on for several minutes, all I could think about was how I felt as if I was being talked down to, and I just wanted to grab the wine, pay for it, and get out of there. The clerk let me know everything he knew about organic wine and “no additional sulfites added” even though I’d already indicated that I had knowledge of the subject.

The most important thing to him was to let me know everything he knew. He didn’t listen to me. He didn’t ask me any additional questions about what I wanted or knew on the subject. I don’t know if I’ll go back there because of how small he made me feel.

Default to listening

I once heard about a study that asked doctors how long they listened to their patients without interruption during office hours. The average response from the doctors was three minutes. Yet when they were observed with their patients, they actually only averaged about twenty seconds of listening before interrupting.

Those doctors think the same way most leaders might; that the best way for them to help others is to talk, talk, talk. When in reality, too much talking has the opposite effect. I can’t help but wonder if better listening might help heal their patients by making them feel heard.

People want to be listened to. It makes them feel like they matter, that what they have to say is important. Leaders are in the perfect spot to listen and to demonstrate what it means to actually hear and understand others.

So instead of helping by telling others everything you know, default to listening. You might just be surprised how many people you help (while helping yourself to be a better leader!).



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Mary Jo Asmus is the founder and President of Aspire Collaborative Services LLC, an executive coach, writer, internationally recognized thought leader, and a consultant who partners with organizations of all kinds to develop and administer coaching programs. She has “walked in your shoes” as a former leader in a Fortune company.


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