At some point in life, everyone needs help, and almost everyone gets an opportunity to offer it. Another thing humans like to do is build identities around certain aspects of our personalities, such as: the person in charge, the person who helps, the person who gives; or others being the person who is lost, the person who is helpless, the person who needs. If these opposing identities meet each other in different persons, this perfect match can quickly lead to toxicity, blame, resentment, and disempowerment. (If we can find these opposing qualities in ourselves, we can become more whole, more free, more resilient.)
Let’s look at our attitudes toward giving and receiving help. Toward the end of this article, Shauna Aura Knight offers an example of the boss who attempted to give her a task, and when she asked clarifying questions, impatiently took the taskback and said he’d do it himself. I’ve been that person on both sides of the exchange. When I worked as a barista, we did high volumes and expected a lot out of each other. We also grappled with periods of high turnover, when trained employees left and untrained employees entered. Those of us who were trained and used to operating at a particular level of performance could get highly stressed by the feeling that we had to pick up the slack, maintain our usual level of service, and deal with the honest mistakes and ignorance of a new employee. It could get very difficult to patiently explain how to make a drink with a new employee when there was a line of customers out the door and a backlog of drinks. Sometimes the best choice was to simply put the employee in a position they could manage while a more experienced worker pushed through the rush.
Continuing this pattern would not work. When it was my responsibility to train or manage new employees, I made it my practice to listen for the jobs they were afraid to do or avoided regularly. I would try to check my impatience and guide them through the process, pointing them to additional resources if needed. If I asked them to do something and heard “I’m not very good at that,” I’d chuckle and say, “Sounds like you need more practice!” I doubt anyone liked hearing this. If they were on bar alone and struggling, I would stop myself from jumping in and taking over, at least giving them a few extra minutes to work through the process on their own. I remembered struggling and feeling overwhelmed, but eventually I got better. So did everyone else. When each of us became stronger individually, our team became stronger. This was not about allowing people to fail, it was about learning to tolerate my own discomfort at watching someone else struggle so that I could discern the right moment to intervene.
When we give into that impatience and keep “helping” people by taking over for them, we contribute to disempowerment. Giving help to someone without asking what help they want, need, or would appreciate is often a great strategy for hurt feelings and wasted energy. Andrew Mwenda and Ernesto Siolli provide explorations of how providing aid and help without partnership and respecting the strengths of the people we’re helping can actually result in harm. We can have deeply satisfying lives and increase justice in our communities when we do listen to what a person needs and offer the resources and support that helps the person and community build upon their strengths.
Some folks get a hero mentality and think if someone is in need we have to do everything for them, so end up either burning out or doing nothing and avoiding the need altogether. Sometimes the best thing I can do is step aside if people with skills and expertise are already on the scene. Sometimes the help I can offer is finding someone better suited to the task than myself. Sometimes it’s about stepping up to a task I can manage even if I don’t feel up to it. One thing I find, more and more, is how much help I can be when someone asks what I think they should do and I simply ask, “What do you think you should do?” and let them talk it through themselves. When considering what help to offer, I try starting with the person’s strengths and desires, then identifying their barriers, and then asking what help am I willing or able to offer.