When “Helping” People is the Wrong Thing to Do

Recently, a very frustrated client complained, “I did my best to help my team. I gave them a clear vision and shared every bit of knowledge I have around implementing the project. They just don’t get it. We are never going to make our deadlines.”

I knew why she was frustrated; when I was a manager, I too had to learn the distinction between serving and fixing others. It wasn’t until I learned how to be a coach that I understood how powerful it could be to quit trying too hard to “help” others.

Helping people by giving them answers can actually stunt their development. You are taking away their ability to think for themselves. They become dependent on you and resign themselves to your authority.

Worse, you deflate their motivation. When your goal is to help people do things “correctly” you are taking the “I know and you don’t” position. You come across as thinking you are better than the people you are helping who have lesser capability, knowledge and strength. As a result, they feel irritated or powerless, not trusted and capable.

Sharing all you know isn’t bad if people are starting new ventures and they know they lack skills and knowledge. They want your help. They may eagerly listen and do what you suggest.

On the other hand, if the people you are trying to help do not see you as the great one with all the knowledge, they won’t hear you. Or, they might see you as informed but want you to acknowledge what they know too. If you don’t engage them in a two-way conversation, their resentment will block your words. They may even retaliate by doing something stupid or doing nothing at all. Then you judge them even more harshly.

Have you ever complained about having to parent another adult? Maybe you are trying too hard to fix them.

In contrast to fixing, if you feel you are asked to be of service, you are more likely to act as if you are working with someone of value equal to yours. If there is mutual respect for what you both know, you respond to a problem with the intention of collaborating to find the solution.

First, seek out the perspective and knowledge of the people you are serving to understand what they know. Provide information they are lacking so they can make better decisions. Then ask questions that might broaden their perspective. From here, new ideas and solutions emerge. If necessary, help them explore possible consequences of their ideas. When they come up with plans for action, ask them what particular support they need from you to be successful.

Not only will you establish a better relationship with those you serve, you will also benefit from taking this stance. You’ll feel more tolerant when you aren’t expecting people to do what you say. You’ll feel more compassion when you hear what the person is grappling with in their mind. You’ll enjoy the relationship better as you build mutual respect.

Quit fixing and start believing in others. Be curious to see what they know before you offer your advice. Determine if their ideas have value and they need more courage than direction. They may know the right answer but are afraid to take the next step. Share stories about times you faced similar situations and how you learned from your mistakes.

You can give them the benefit of your experiences but they need their own experiences and lessons to develop.

The next time you think a team or person needs to be fixed, ask yourself how you can best be of service. This might help your personal relationships, too. You can’t fix your friends or your spouse.

Dr. Rachel Remen, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, writes, “When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life whole.” Do you see people as broken or whole? They will know how you judge them by your actions.

Seek to serve instead of fix. Life isn’t about your great accomplishments. It’s about being a significant member of a greater community where we are all standing side-by-side doing our best to thrive.

8 thoughts on “When “Helping” People is the Wrong Thing to Do”

  1. Thanks Marcia! I love the clarification about serving and this communicates that they are whole versus fixing and they are broken. A simple and yet very powerful shift, my favorite kind!

  2. Thank you very much Marcia! Very nice reminder. I see the word ‘serving’ as accepting the other as he is, while fixing is, at some instance, a try to change the other.

  3. Marcia,
    The simplicity and elegance of delivery provided me with a safe and non threatening way to not only listen, but to hear and absorb your message.
    I am grateful.
    Raleigh R. Pinskey

  4. Thank you Marcia for this powerful “Help”, I can just see myself with my teenager sons here. It is easier to apply while coaching than raising a family. I will definitely remeber your words starting now. Many thanks for sharing.

    1. Marcia Reynolds

      You are so right, using coaching skills is a good way to connect with teenagers. Hope it works for you!

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