As humans, to help others is a psychological and social need. Why? at a fundamental level, when others feel hurt, so do we. When others feel happiness, so do we. So, we work towards helping others feel happy. Therefore, it is human nature to want to help others. When someone we know is going through a challenge, we want to offer advice or encouragement—tell them what to do to feel better. We want to fix their problem or stop their pain. By fixing the issues or stopping the pain of others, we are minimizing our how hurt. However, sometimes, other people do not need us to fix their problems or stop their pain. Sometimes, people just want to be heard. I will give you two examples from my life.
Example 1: While on-site consulting for a major pharma client, I was experiencing an approach conflict with a project manager. We were just not seeing eye-to-eye. It was super frustrating. I wanted to talk about what I was feeling. I just needed to bitch! So, I turned to a colleague—whom I thought would be ideal for my bitch session. But, she wanted to focus on taking the high road and fixing the problem. I knew what to do and that ultimately, I would do the right thing and work out the issue with the project manager. However, what I needed in that moment was to contemplate and be with my feelings and just be pissed for a few minutes. I needed to just be heard. I knew I would eventually put on my white hat and get into the best and appropriate professional mode to smooth over the conflict with the project manager. I knew what to do, but I was not ready yet. My colleague could not understand this. She just wanted to tell me how to fix the issue—because that was what she needed. I just nodded my head in agreement to her advice and smiled as if she saved my life. I granted her the opportunity to feel better and let her feel she helped me. In truth, I shut down. She got what she needed, after all.
Example 2: My middle son, who is a college student, as well as an individual on the Autism Spectrum, shared he was having an issue with socializing with others on campus and developing relationships. There were social ques he was not getting. By profession and personality, I am wired to think about how to resolve issues. So, I can automatically go into solution-focused, problem-solving mode. I’m running questions and brainstorming, digging deep, citing research, and coaching my son around the problem and the aspects of social behavior that is contributing to his issue. I noticed he started getting frustrated and shutting down. Not the response I was expecting. Because of my profession and mental wiring, I’m sensitive to behavioral changes, and I am always listening and observing for those changes. So, I stopped to check-in when I noticed my son checked-out. I asked him what was he thinking and feeling in that moment. He said… “I just want you to listen.” I privately thought I had been. He must have picked up on my quizzical look and private thoughts. “No, I mean, I just want to vent. I don’t need you to fix the problem,” he said. Gasp! Ouch! I can’t believe I made this rookie coach mistake. I was hurting because he was. So, I was trying to satisfy my human (and mom) need to help. But, that was not what he needed in that moment. He needed a confidant whom he could just talk to without judgement. He knew what needed to be done to fix his issue, he was not ready yet. He wanted to bitch and needed a person that would let him do that.
I made the same mistake with my son, as my colleague made with me. What I leaned in both life experiences is that we need to understand what type of help people need, not what type of help we want to offer because we think we know what is best for others because it makes us feel good. We must learn when helping is about not helping. Sometimes people just want to be heard and to be with their feelings and thoughts. In other words, we should recognize when people want to be human—raw and pissed-off for the moment. We must trust that even when a person bitches and moans, think negative or complains, that individual knows deep down what the right thing to do is, for his or her own wellbeing. We need to know when not helping is really helping.