Managers and the Helpitis Malady


Most of us want to be helpful. It's satisfying knowing that we've been able to solve a problem for another person. But what about those times when the other person doesn't really want our help? In this column, Eileen Strider shows how to offer "healthy" assistance, without giving in to the sickly variety.

Do you suffer from Helpitis? It's a fairly common malady that manifests itself as a seemingly uncontrollable urge to help othe—whether they want help or not. Although Helpitis sufferers generally mean well, this behavior can be problematic for them and the person they are trying to assist. Often the problem isn't the help itself but rather the unilateral way it is given.

Here's an example. I once had a boss who wanted to be very supportive of me. When I'd walk into his office and start talking about a problem, he would immediately start solving it for me. Sometimes he'd even start by picking up his telephone and calling the other person involved to "straighten him out." This typically made things worse for me, and I would get angry with him and myself. When I finally realized he was "just trying to be helpful," I decided that maybe I should be clearer about what I wanted when I walked into his office. So I modified my approach by starting such conversations with, "Now, please don't do anything yet. I have a problem but I don't want you to solve it for me. I just want you to listen." Listening was the kind of help I wanted. But how could he know that unless I told him? He replied with surprise, "Oh, I didn't realize that's what you wanted from me."

It's easy to make the mistake my manager did, especially for the Helpitis afflicted. I, too, am guilty of inflicting help on unsuspecting victims. I consider myself a pretty good problem solver. So when someone presents a problem to me, I immediately assume that I'm suppose to solve it. In fact, I can get very intrigued with the problem itself and forget that there is actually another person involved. I often don't even recognize if the person has asked me for any help. I just start helping in whatever way fits for me. And this can be worse if I'm in a role of some authority and can act swiftly to "fix" things rather than wait for the person to solve the problem on his own. Of course, this robs the person of any chance to practice and develop his own problem-solving skills. But oh, the satisfaction of solving a problem feels so good! Sound familiar?

Healthy Help
How many kinds of help can you offer without bringing on a flare-up of Helpitis? Many. Here are a few to consider.

Listening, just listening, can be tremendously helpful. Sometimes, someone is just trying to inform you that there is a problem and that it is being solved. Other times, the person who has approached you just wants to voice some thoughts and hear if they make sense to the listener. How many times have you wished for someone just to listen to you?

Generating a list of possible solutions with the other person is another way to be helpful. It allows the person with the problem to still own it and choose for herself which solution to pursue.

Asking questions to clarify the problem can help the other person recognize potential solutions.

Referring the person to someone with experience with the particular kind of problem can be a wonderful way to help.

As you can see, there are a number of ways you can help without taking over. And then there is the option of actually solving the problem for the person, if that's what she wants and you explicitly agree to do so.

Self-Treatment Techniques
Helpitis does not have to be a chronic malady. It is treatable by practicing some simple (but not easy) techniques:

  • When a person brings a problem to you, early in the conversation, ask if he would like some help and if so, what kind he would prefer. This may feel strange at first to both of you. You may only appreciate the usefulness of this question later after you've finished the conversation.
  • Decide if you are the appropriate person to give the kind of help requested; if not, refer him to someone better suited to provide this kind of help.
  • If you tackle the problem, do your best to provide the kind of help requested. If that kind of help is new to you or difficult for you to give, be sure to let the person know.
  • If you realize that you really can't help, admit it. Try saying, "I wish I had a solution for you. I don't—but I certainly understand the problem."
  • Monitor the way you are giving help. Are you giving the kind of help requested or slipping into your favorite way of helping? Check it out with the other person. Ask if what you are doing is helping.
  • Practice these steps, modifying them until you feel comfortable, it fits your style, and you hear from the receiver that you have been helpful.

If you suffer from Helpitis, please be gentle with yourself. You are not alone; there are many of us. Appreciate your good intentions and recognize that it is possible for all of us to improve how and when we give help. Your help is a wonderful gift, especially when given with care, respect, and consideration for the receiver.

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