Saturday, August 21, 2010

Well-Intended Boneheaded Moves

We all do it from time to time, some more frequently than others. We see a situation where we want to help and we just know we can make things better. So full of love, goodness and the best of intentions, we jump in and... well... it just doesn't work out the way we planned it. Not only does our help fail to make things better, it actually makes them worse. Instead of thanks and praise, we are rebuffed and asked to try not to be so helpful.

I've seen many relationships degrade or completely break down due primarily to well-intended, but inept efforts to help: children who avoid their parents, former friends who avoid one another, siblings who can't be in the same room. So today, I thought it'd be fun to play around with common ways of helping that are basically really stupid.

Oh Come On, It's Easy
Yesterday in Will I Never Learn, I talked about how liberating it can be to find yourself in an impossible or at least improbable situation. It's freeing because it eliminates the prospect of failure: not failure in terms of completing the task, but failure in terms of the expectations of yourself and others.

When working with someone who's already unsure of themselves and has a poor self-image (either generally or in the context of what you're trying to accomplish), telling him that something is super easy is a great way to ensure he either quits early or never tries. Teaching someone to ski, you may say, "Look at all the little kids flying down the mountain. See how easy it is!" and they hear, "This so easy that you'd have to be friggin lame-o moron not to be able to do it!"

Your soft words of encouragement land like bricks dislodged from a tall building. Your intention is to let her know that she can do it once she learns how to do it and even though it seems impossible, it's not. So, instead of saying, "Hey, this is a piece of cake!", say that.

False Praise
Among the more dreaded phrases heard by man is: "Honey, does this make me look fat?"

I believe several books have been written to exclusively address how to respond to that question and its variants. Unfortunately, the very nature of the question results in a high-probability of an affirmative answer. Combine that with the nature of most relationships and you have an extremely high probability of impending falsehood.

Lying about your assessment, whether you simply say, "No! You look great!" or you feign narcolepsy, says two things about a relationship: 1) you believe that he can't handle the truth, and 2) you certainly can't handle telling the truth. It breeds mistrust and is a setup for a big break somewhere down the road.

We use false praise all the time, especially when we're trying to be encouraging. We tell kids that they did a great job. We tell employees that their doing fine. We tell partners that they look great.

When I got to Berklee, there was a young sax player who had arrived for auditions with a toy saxophone made of plastic. It didn't have a reed. It only played a C-major scale. And yet, here he was at Berklee for auditions as a sax player. He'd played it for years and no one had ever told him, "Hey man, you know that what you're playing ain't actually a saxophone, right?"

False praise and it's close partner, the omission of accurate feedback, are setups. However, avoiding false praise is not as difficult as it might seem. We typically use false praise because we answer generally reducing a complex assessment to a yes or no, good or bad type of answer. The answer to those who want to be encouraging is to become more specific. You can buffer your "negative" feedback with points of "positive" feedback, e.g., "I like how the color of that dress brings out your eyes, but the cut isn't really working for you."

Let Me Get That for You
One of the rules I've learned in teaching people about computers is this: If you're typing, then they ain't learning. It's amazing how often we try to help people by doing for them the very things that they need to learn to do. Each time we step in, each time we grab the wheel, each time we save the day, we undermine confidence, self-esteem and learning.

In some cases, the message comes across: "Looks like you're not going to get this right, I'd better do it for you." In other cases, the message is: "Hey, if you just wait long enough or don't try at all, someone will take care of it." In either case, the learning process is interrupted.

The trick is being willing to let others fail. It's easy to learn things that come naturally. One could argue that in those cases, you're not actually learning at all. However, real learning occurs when you do things that don't come naturally, when you fail over and over again, see the pattern in it and then overcome it. You can't do that when someone steps in to do it for you.

What You Really Want to Do Is...
We all appreciate situations where we're able to provide advice that is meaningful, relevant and useful. It feels good to help someone in this manner. There are times when advice can be the best way to go. However, giving advice short-circuits learning. It's like assigning math homework with all the answers filled in. When we advise people, we deny them the opportunity to figure things out for themselves.

In many cases, advising builds dependency and for many, that dependency is appealing. I know lots of people who feel really food that others depend upon them for advice. In many ways, it's all good. And in many ways, it's not.

Every once in a while, my daughter Eila will talk about the period where I simply stopped advising my kids, but instead would ask them questions. At first, she found it frustrating, even infuriating. Why couldn't I just tell her what to do? However, in fairly short order, she began coming up with her own answers, answers that were better suited to her than any I could have provided. Along with her answers came increased confidence and capacity.

So, if you're big on providing advice and guidance and you really want to help, try questions. That's my advice.

If I Build It, They Will Come.
This is one of the more bone-headed moves that I still find myself pulling. I often find myself in situations where I can see the problems, I can see the answers, I know what to do and how to do it, but... the people whom I would help aren't ready to see problems or hear answers or do anything. So, what do I do? Walk away, right? Nope. Instead, I decide that, if I just go do it for them, then they'll see what I'm talking about and they'll jump on board.

In the end, I've decided that it's best not to try to help someone who's not ready to help himself. Though that doesn't seem to stop me from trying.

You Know, I Had the Same Problem and....
We used to call them war stories. You walk into someone's office with a problem that you're trying to solve and in a good-natured attempt to relate to you, the person whose help you're seeking launches into her own story of a similar situation. Before you know it, you've completely lost the track of why you walked in in the first place.

We all want to relate to others and to establish common ground by sharing common experience. However, there are situations in which establishing common ground isn't the highest priority or where it can tip into one-ups-man-ship. Sometimes, the best way to establish common ground is to simply listen and ask questions.

We're All a Bit Boneheaded
We all make well-intended boneheaded moves. Sometimes we compound them, layering move upon move upon move in our efforts to undo what we've done. Boneheaded moves are easy. Any idiot can do them. Or any genius. Or any loving and caring parent.

What boneheaded moves have you made in the last week? What would you do differently?

Happy Saturday,

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