“Can I be of assistance?”
You hear that a lot, often when you haven’t asked for it. Very often it’s part of a call centre script; the consultant’s bot-like responses are the giveaway. Or you’re shopping, and there’s a retail assistant helicoptering when you want to be left alone. These aren’t exercises in being helpful, for the simple reason that if you’d wanted help, you’d have already requested it.
Here’s an example
A colleague approached a friendly-seeming chap’s desk – call him P. They’d chatted occasionally about past jobs and exchanged workplace banter, which frequently concluded with P’s jovial “There’s no such thing as a silly question!”.
The colleague took him up on this when grappling with a project requiring unfamiliar skills, involving difficult team players. He knew P had previously done a stint in that team and asked if they could have a quick meeting. Over a fifteen-minute coffee, aware he was treading in politically sticky terrain, he asked P some cautious questions.
“Well,” P smirked.
“You’re stuck with it. You’re dealing with X, Y and M; I don’t even deal with those people if I don’t have to.”
After several rebuffs, discerning P’s reluctance, the miffed colleague paid for their coffees and watched him canter away.
P isn’t unusual. He’s collegiate, experienced and skilled, with a whiff of the time-server about him. He just doesn’t think being willing to help is part of his job description. Yet, helpfulness can become part of everyone’s quotidian.
Listen to everyone’s story
P’s lack of cooperation might be understandable, but he reacted dogmatically about what he was prepared to hear. When my friend started to query an aspect of the project, P smilingly stopped him with visual cues saying: “Nup, nup, nup. Not listening — don’t wanna hear“. He even held up his hands, as though the colleague were a charity mugger. For a fifteen-minute window of conversation, that’s pre-emptive. You can’t always predict another’s ‘story’, so why judge? Why not make time to listen?
Placing limits around how much we can help can be very important. Interestingly, some of the most helpful people can be the harshest when it comes to saying no. They shut up shop because responding to and sorting out other people’s messes takes an emotional toll. They also break down on occasion because they are carrying too much (frequently volunteered) responsibility.
The rush to empathise when a person’s in trouble might be an emollient for emotions, but it doesn’t do much to solve the problem. Absolutely, it’s important to recognise and respond to another’s feelings, but equally we need to exercise detachment. Pay attention to what’s being said (and not said) without drowning in what the other’s currently experiencing. Think about what you can practically do to help.
Show interest and ask
Undoubtedly, when relaying their problems, some people go on and on and on, and yes, you may start to feel overwhelmed. When time is in short supply, many of us are under considerable pressure to produce “outcomes”. P clearly believed his time was better spent elsewhere, and was quite uninterested in occurrences outside his little bubble. We all need to break the bubble more often, and take an interest in others. Doing so helps us all to contextualise.
Be open to challenges
What did the colleague actually want from P? Aside from a few subtle political insights, he was in fact angling for P’s assistance in improving the team’s unwieldy database tool. P’s dismissive reaction foreclosed any chance of future cooperation with that project. It could well have transpired that P’s involvement would not have improved matters anyway, but challenges, faced honestly, when shared are often reduced. Solve one problem and several others might get sorted, too.
Find joy in offering
This is like when you think you can’t do any more planking in the gym, but you pierce the mental barrier and actually hold out for another minute. Suddenly you’re exhilarated (though feeling the burn). Don’t begrudge your time and energy. A person goes away happier. Think of the difference that you’ve made. Admit it, you feel great!
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If enough of us pierce our mental barriers when it comes to lending a hand, impossible situations and colleagues become bearable. Sometimes people just need reassurance, sometimes a pair of hands (or several) to lighten the load, or the power to halt a situation that’s rapidly going bad. The chain-gang sensation of many work environments evaporates like magic.
Being willing to help is transformative, both for others and for ourselves.