When You're Asked to Help Someone

A client told me that they had recently tasked one of their subordinates to help someone else in the group. They were a little concerned with my uncharacteristic silence. After they asked why I was quiet, we talked about some of my concerns and what was going on. This situation comes up somewhat regularly, so I will walk through my mental breakdown of how to handle situations like this.

What is the situation?

I always want to know what prompted the suggestion that someone help someone else. There are typically several reasons for it, and none of them are discussed openly. For example, its quite common to set something like this up if the other person is new and genuinely needs help in their new endeavor.

It is also common to do this if they’re not new and nobody bothered to find out.

Another reason is to push the person they sent to grow more. A new leader may be sent into an area to help them learn the hard way.

Or, it could be a test to see how they handle themselves.

Either way, I need to know what the situation is before I can do much. Also, telling people any of these reasons is a great start.

What do they think?

Many people take on exciting new things to prove themselves, and having someone else show up to save them is the opposite of what they want. That person that needs help probably wasn’t consulted in any of this. What do they think? What would help look like to them?

Asking goes a long way in making first contact smooth and establishing how to help effectively.

What about the risk?

Very often, help is inflicted on groups who are perceived as being behind or non-compliant. This may not be a fact, but the perception is enough to warrant extra people showing up to get things back on track.

A conversation about the current risks that prompted the help uncovers this.

In my experience, help either comes way too early or too late. Best to know which side of that is your situation.

Offer help

Let’s move into how to offer help to someone. To put it rather bluntly, you have to make a genuine offer. No fake offers or veiled threats are allowed.

You also have to be ready for them to refuse.

Many people want time and space to explore things their way before getting put onto someone else’s path. Some people have a lot to prove, as I mentioned above. Also, and this is really important to me, some people learn best when they experience a struggle for a bit. I don’t assume this, though. I ask and find out their style.

So sit with them and make an offer.

But it is too important!

It probably isn’t, but let’s skip past that for now. When you aren’t willing to compromise on how they’d like help, your next course of action is to establish boundaries.

Boundaries act to make sure people can operate independently but with sane limits. A boundary could be that we need to see progress every month, or you can’t exceed the budget.

Sounds tough, but often people never actually say these things. That only leaves people guessing.

If you think the only way to save the situation is to do things your way, then say so. I’d also pause and ask yourself if you’re willing to take full responsibility at that point as well. If you are, let them know the current course of action isn’t acceptable, and you must intervene.

I think I’ve done that less than five times in 10 years. Use this sparingly.

Walk away

After talking with them, setting boundaries, etc., it’s time to walk away. Not in the sense that you’re abandoning them, but rather that you’re giving them space to continue to do their work. If you attended to making a real offer and set some boundaries, they will know they can contact you when things go wrong, and you can detect it.

Let them work.

Many people want to do things their way, and I think that’s fine. Help from me looks like a 30-minute conversation about the situation and an offer to assist and boundaries. I may not hear from them again for a month. Yet, if they’re figuring things out, then it is totally fine. They can succeed in their schedule.