When Do You Inflict Help?

I bet you have a person like this in your life: Person says, “I’ve got a problem.” Your ears perk up. A problem! You can help. “Tell me more,” you say. Person explains problem. You start to ask questions, “Have you considered this?” Person turns to you and says, “I didn’t ask for help. I want you to listen.”

Oops. You’ve inflicted help.

In my business, I coach, consult, teach, all aspects of solving problems with people. As a problem solver, we help people think about their problems and solve them. I often have to make sure I’m not inflicting help.

Here are some cues I’m inflicting help:

  • I have The Solution. That solution is jumping up and down in my head, saying, “Tell them! They need to know! They need to know now! Don’t keep it a secret! Tell them!!!” Notice all the exclamation marks. For me, that’s an indication of the One Right Solution.
  • The Nike approach popped into my head: I’ll just do it. Move over, I’ll do it.
  • I want to finish their sentences before they stop talking. (I suspect that even some introverts feel this.) If I know their problem, I can solve it.

Each of these is a trap.

My zeroth intervention is to ask this question: Would you like me to listen, or help solve this problem?

Sometimes, people need to talk things through. I love to talk things through because I speak in order to know what I’m thinking. I suspect that sometimes introverts will discuss problems with their lips, not just inside their heads. They might need to talk to themselves first. Maybe one of you introverts will let us know what you do in the comments.

If I only have permission to listen, I do. I insert the relevant “ooh,” and “tell me more,” and nods at the right places. I do reserve the right to say I don’t want to listen anymore if I’ve heard this particular problem for the 455th time in a week or month. That’s when I use the Rule of Three to suggest options if I’m no longer willing to listen: I can introduce you to my duck, help you solve this problem or stop listening.

The One Right Solution means I haven’t considered the Rule of Three. I actually use the Rule of Three to help me stop inflicting help. I know my solution will help. I know it. Instead of sharing that solution, I have to consider two other options. That’s a form of going meta on the problem.

If I want to shove the other person over and “Just” do it, I know I’m in some thinking trap. I might be in the trap of “knowing” the problem, how to solve the problem, and not wanting to spend the time to help the other person learn how to solve the problem themselves. I know that if I take the time, I can teach this person to solve this problem—if they want to learn how.

If I start to finish their sentences, I’m suffering from the know-it-all trap. I might be solving my similar problem. Not theirs.

Inflicting help isn’t necessarily fatal to a relationship. And, when I taught my daughters to drive, I inflicted help all the time because it was a matter of our safety.

And, more often than not, we don’t have to inflict help. For me, the first step is recognizing I am inflicting help.

That is the question, my dear adaptable problem-solvers: When do you inflict help?

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