"But, I just wanted to help!"
As soon as I think or say these words, I know that I've already entered the danger zone with my 6-year old daughter.
Of course, my intent is usually positive. I see her struggling. I see her about to make a mistake that would lead to a huge mess or perhaps getting hurt. So the next impulse thought is that she clearly NEEDS my help. And being the good and loving parent that I am, I should step in immediately and without asking to HELP her. Ha!
90% of the time this results in me upsetting her. She doesn't want my help. She wants to figure it out herself and feel smart and accomplished. She doesn't want her daddy to imply that she wasn't capable (even if he was right). So this is where I typically back peddle and try to soothe her (and others). "I'm sorry, but I just wanted to help!"
A mentor of mine once said something that has forever changed my personal and professional relationships. Paraphrasing: "every time you do for someone what they can do themselves, you are disrespecting them."
Initially, I pushed back. As a contrarian, I love to find edge cases and counterexamples. However, he persisted and provided more context. If you solve a problem before they had a chance to try, then they can perceive that to mean you don't believe they are capable of doing it on their own. Done over and over again, they can start to believe this themselves, which erodes their self-confidence and creates a vicious loop.
Now try the inverse. Let them try once. Let them try a hundred times and get feedback and apply creativity towards the problem. Now when it's solved, there is a massive sense of accomplishment and a gain in self-esteem. They now own the fact that they can solve this problem and can apply similar approaches to overcome new and more challenging problems.
Yes, mistakes will be made. Milk will be spilled, and there will be occasional bruises and scrapes to heal. And no, we should never allow a child to be in actual danger where the consequences can be painful and irreversible.
But as I've learned in applying this principle, the other person is often OK struggling a bit to try and figure it out themselves. It's usually my discomfort in watching them take too much time OR my fear that I'll be the one to clean up the mess that causes me to rush in. This is why the real reason is not always that "I was just trying to help." Instead, it was my own inability to sit in that discomfort and allow someone else to do something less effective than I can. This is where my mentor was spot on. The real underlying intent wasn't positive and trying to be helpful. It was actually negative and being disrespectful to their growth. And sometimes, they can actually do something better than I could, so I also needed to be humble and keep my own ego in check.
Again, this may not apply in all situations. Sometimes the stakes are too high, and the moment is too brief. But this may indicate a different approach is needed. For example, ensuring there is enough time and space moving forward to allow the other person to be resourceful and figure it out on their own.
Since this meeting with my mentor, I've found that this to be an invaluable approach to my relationships. Now I try to respect people more by letting them figure it out and ONLY "help" when they ask me. Ok, if I was 100% honest, only if the discomfort inside of me builds up too much such that I can't hold back anymore!
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About Rick Manelius
Quick Stats: CXO of Atomic Form. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.