Helping people can come in the most unusual ways.
One day, I was working at my usual spot at the local Starbucks. I was working nearby a mother who had what seemed like half a dozen kids.
As I was working away, I started to hear her kids going up to her and asking for money. They were clearly pretty bored and wanted something to do. Fortunately the Starbucks I’m in is connected to the mall, right across from a small arcade area. They were asking for money to play there.
The mother was trying to work. And with her kids constantly demanding and bothering her, she was feeling pretty frustrated and stressed. Even her work was kind of stressing her out as well.
After I finished my work session, she was still working away and I decided to help her out a little bit.
I recall that she bought some snacks for her kids to munch on and there was a convenient pile of garbage on her table. I walked over to her table and picked up her trash and asked her:
“Are you done with this?”
She looked rather stunned before stammering out a “yes.”
I smiled and said, “I overheard the conversation you had with your kids and figured I’d lend a hand.”
She laughed a little and smiled and said: “Thank you.”
I left her and noticed a smile on her face as she went back to work.
Helping people out is something that I’ve done for a long time. Ever since I was 13 I seemed to be the guy where people opened up to me about their issues. Not necessarily in public but over the internet. Because of this, I’ve learned some valuable rules in what it takes to actually be helping people out.
From when to back off, and when to lean in and support. I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on people’s emotional side when it comes to helping others.
As a result, I’ve developed some golden rules for myself. By no means are these standard across the board, but I know many would agree these make sense. I’d also encourage you to check out zen habit’s list for helping others. Many of the items echo what I write and expand on them.
Don’t Try To Solve Their Problems
Let’s go back to the story I just wrote about above.
Clearly the mother had some issues.
Over the course of me working near her, I overheard she was having some issues with a business of hers. On top of that, there was the mass of children bugging her.
So why prioritize picking up some trash for her?
My action seems a little odd, especially since some people might have given advice about her parenting skills.
Or maybe give her some tips on managing stress better.
But the issue with that is that I’d be breaking the first rule of mine: Never try to solve people’s problems.
I know it sounds weird. If we’re helping people our goal is to help fix their problem. But the thing is, we don’t know the full picture.
Maybe she is one of the greatest mothers in the whole world.
Or maybe the source of this stress is just something she can’t control and is overcoming it.
Or maybe she is a complete jerk.
The thing is I don’t know this person outside of the few hours I sat near her and was sorta eavesdropping on her conversations.
But what I do know is that she was having a generally rough day and maybe a small and kind gesture might cheer her up a bit.
My point is the purpose of helping people isn’t always to fix people’s problems or be the solution they need. Some people have rough days and don’t need people barging into their lives and play “parent” or “psychiatrist” or “life coach” every time they are struggling with something.
Maybe all they really need is someone to do something nice for them.
There is only one time where you ought to be more involved. I’ll explain when that is at a later point.
Do Make A Point Of Doing A Small Kind Gesture
Helping people doesn’t just apply to friends or family. While that’s definitely the common thing, we can also help complete strangers. Like I did with that woman in Starbucks.
In those kinds of instances, it’s better to stay on the side of caution and to help in smaller amounts. I mainly use this rule as a reminder for myself to not try and fix other people’s problems.
After all, I write on a blog where I want to provide as much detail and be as helpful as I can. It can be a little tough sometimes to hold back a bit.
The last thing people need is some random guy saying “Hey, I wrote an article that might help you with something. Here’s my business card and go check out my site.”
Yeah. That’s definitely great PR there. *He says sarcastically.*
Anyway, getting into a mindset that even a small gesture can be impactful is key – regardless of the person. After all, we don’t always have the full picture of a person’s situation or problem as I mentioned above.
Maybe they’re overthinking the problem.
They may also have a bias that can distort the problem.
I make a point of doing small gestures and provide some guidance because sometimes that’s the best decision out there. Again, helping people isn’t about fixing their problems. Sometimes it’s giving them a new perspective or something to think about.
Or sometimes it’s just a small act of kindness or a compliment.
And sometimes you can help people by just being someone to vent to. Many people have all kinds of problems and finding someone to vent to helps.
No matter what, you can’t go wrong by doing a small and kind thing for someone else.
Do Be There When They Need It
What I mean by that is what I mentioned above: being someone that people can vent to and find council.
While I think doing small things for people should be your go-to option if you want to assist people, there are times where you can be more involved. Helping people at this capacity can provide ample benefits.
For one it builds trust between you and that person. This also helps you in understanding more about this person as well.
But as I’ve kind of been hinting at, this rule can be a double-edged sword. It can help – but use it at the wrong time and you’ll do more damage.
Going back to my example with the woman I never met before, if I started to help her with her other issues, she likely would get very defensive. Not only am I a complete stranger but I have the audacity of telling her how she should live her life.
That’s not being helpful. That’s being utterly disrespectful.
It’s why in circumstances where I’m dealing with a stranger, I never try to pry.
Here are some other stipulations to this rule:
- Only provide advice if they ask for it. In any other scenario, you can state your feelings, and empathize with them.
- Never barge into people’s lives. Ask yourself “Do I know this person enough to provide some legit advice?” If the answer is no, find another way to help them other than stating an opinion. Things like a small and kind gesture will do.
- The advice you give should be action-oriented. Give links to articles, or present a few other ideas.
- Never tell someone “you should…”. You are imposing your opinion on that person and that person doesn’t need it. Also, this can come off as a command and let’s face it: since when – barring any military group – has any person followed a command?
Stepping into people’s lives happens all the time. But when it comes to helping others, you need to set clear boundaries. When should you step in? How involved should you get? Make a point of reading the person, the room, and the circumstances.
Do Be Friendly, Attentive, And Empathetic
Always practice being a positive force for people. What this means is embracing these aspects, even if they don’t come into play at all.
Out of the many aspects, I’d like to highlight these three qualities: friendliness, being attentive, and being empathetic.
No matter what, you want to be friendly to people.
This doesn’t always mean agreeing to every single thing they say though. There is a difference between being friendly and being overly-agreeable.
Friendliness is coming off as warm and easy to talk to on the surface. Should people be asking for advice, make a point of not providing your opinion directly. Like I mentioned above you want to avoid any direct commands or really sell your personal opinion.
Instead, friendliness can be offering advice and saying “I believe…” or, “I think…” These come off as suggestions and people may likely explore those options rather than brush them off. Even if those happen to be your personal feelings for what that person should do. Here are some other ways to provide friendly advice.
Being attentive is not only paying a little bit of attention to what’s happening but also deeply listening to people when needed.
How much attention you need depends on the situation. When helping out strangers, take some time to pay attention to their surroundings. Going back to the stranger I helped, I paid attention not to the entirety of her conversations but rather what she was doing.
I heard on occasion her voice being stressed or a little harsh. Not only that, but I noticed she bought some food and had yet to put the bags in the garbage.
The idea here is with strangers you don’t want to entirely invest in their daily life. Merely what they are doing at that moment.
When it comes to people you know though that’s an entirely different story. In cases where you know the person and allow them to vent, pay attention to everything they are saying. Focus on active listening.
Lastly, empathy is a skill that takes practice as well and melds nicely with paying attention.
Empathy is our ability to relate to certain emotions or what people are going through. What’s also key about this skill is you can use this in the case where you don’t even know the person.
Going back to the same example I’ve used, I did mention earlier that I heard about her talking with her kids. While I’m certainly no parent, I do know on a daily basis dealing with kids can be a generally stressful thing.
But being able to put yourself in their shoes for a little bit and convey that, can be impactful. Again I made that woman smile from a few words and a kind gesture.
Being able to balance those three skills is crucial to helping people actively and in ways you wouldn’t have been able to before. Best of all, these skills are things we can all hone over time (such as empathy).
Don’t Feed Them Constantly
Of course, not all instances of helping are brief moments. Sometimes you are in there deep.
A friend running into financial troubles.
Your friend dealing with a break-up or struggling with a relationship.
The list goes on and on.
But this particular rule goes back to what I mentioned earlier: don’t barge into people’s lives.
This particular rule though takes a slightly different spin to that in that you want to avoid direct relief. Indeed, you want to avoid helping people directly at all costs.
But why?! Don’t you want to be helping people? Why is that so bad?
The biggest reason for this is simple: dependence.
You know in parks with animals they have signs that read “don’t feed the wildlife” right? Do you wonder why they have these signs there?
Because if you feed the animals on a regular basis, they start to develop a certain way of thinking. Eventually, those animals will stop hunting and trying to survive on their own. Instead, they will look to you for their own survival.
In other words, those animals will likely stay at that spot on a regular basis thinking that you’ll be there for them 24/7.
The reality is: you won’t be.
The twist to this fact is that animal behaviour is not that different from humans.
Think about it.
If we provide money to homeless people all of the time they will never try to be innovative. They won’t bother looking for work or trying to make money outside of the few things they do to get money.
If we continue to tip waiters and waitresses they won’t take active steps in demanding higher wages. Today, waiters and waitresses get paid a decent amount mainly due to tips. So much so the US government has put in specific rules revolving around them.
While those kinds of gestures are indeed nice and feel good things, they create a state of dependency for those people.
Even though we are more intelligent than animals, we still won’t put any effort into getting ourselves out of trouble if we have one person we can rely on.
I have a friend whom over the years I spotted him money. Over the course of me helping him, I’ve given him over $500. My friend said he would pay me back when he gets the money, however that has yet to happen. I’ve been waiting for 5 years.
That’s not to say I’m angry about it. I merely expect him to never pay me back because I understand these tendencies.
I know that this view is cynical and not the most popular opinion, but from an emotional level, this makes sense. That being said, I’m not saying we ought to let these people drown and suffer forever.
To better explain my point let’s look at this quote:
“Give a man a fish and he’ll be fed for the day. Teach the man how to fish and he’ll be fed for the rest of his life.”
We can spin this analogy another way.
Give someone money and they’ll be good for the day. Teach someone how to make money and they’ll be good for the rest of their lives.
This is my sort of philosophy. While I agree with donating to good causes and offering charity is good, it’s not going to solve much long-term. People will still be dependent and if those programs ever collapse, people will be in harsher situations than before.
It’s why I’d encourage smaller acts of kindness or even a few suggestions and nudges. They may be small in the grand scheme of things, but they become more.
I know this full well. After all, how I gravitated towards writing was through a string of small yet seemingly insignificant events over my childhood and early adult life. From those events and a few people saying “consider writing” I’ve carved a career I’m happy with.
To expand on that don’t say things that could spark an argument either. While people have opposing views, there is a certain way to deal with arguments.
For one, absolutely avoid saying “you should…” That is argument fodder right there.
Another thing is to avoid giving a direct opinion. Again going for “I think…” or “I believe…” doesn’t necessarily mean you are right, but you’re also not wrong either.
The point of helping people is to give them a direction rather than a specific solution. After all, people who drag you into their problems know more about the problem than you do.
And what’s worse is that some people will pull you into an argument just so they can blame someone else if they mess up. Never give them the chance to do that and make a point of saying that your words aren’t the only solutions.
The world is filled with people and information. What’s important is to find a solution that works for you.
Do Recognize You Can’t Change Them
Another rule I use to keep my distance is to remind myself that I’m not helping them to change their lives around. While in some cases advice can change people’s lives and direction, that isn’t always the case.
Some people simply won’t change or some people are so negative that they think they can’t change.
No matter the case, you want to go into helping people with the mindset that your actions are but a small piece of a person’s entire life. You don’t need to make it extraordinary or spectacular.
It’s all a matter of being yourself and doing the best that you can to help that person. Whether that person changes from what you did is secondary.
Do Recognize When You Need Help
One other aspect of helping people is sometimes we get so wrapped up in helping people we forget to look after ourselves. I can speak from experience on this as I was breaking this rule for over a decade of my life.
From when I was 13 years old to my early twenties, I was in a state where I was giving advice to people but never really applying it myself. While my problems as a teenager were drastically different than the issues I struggled with as a younger adult, it’s still the same principle.
While helping people doesn’t necessarily mean that you should have life all figured out, the least you can do is recognize when you need help in certain areas. It’s why I’m investing time in developing my mindset. It’s why I took courses to improve my writing business as well.
At the very least take some actions and pay attention to the advice you give to others. You never know. It might be the advice that you need as well.
Helping People Takes Effort
As you can see, there is an art to offering help to people. It takes some understanding of people and understanding how much should you be helping people. I can’t promise you that sticking to these rules will make you a master of helping people. But at the very least I hope that you understand the complexities and can learn when a small kind gesture is needed or whether to lend a larger hand to help someone out.
To your growth!
Eric S Burdon