How to Give Help, How to Ask for It

Giving help is a craft; receiving help, an art.

Helping someone to see more clearly is often the best way to give support. Jill felt that life was a jagged, steep mountain she was trying to climb. What a struggle. When she was asked to close her eyes and imagine a ladder beside her, she did so and then laughed, “Of course. I can choose to keep struggling or grab the ladder and climb easily.” Jill was not able to see the ladder on her own. She needed someone to point out her strengths and options.

When you help others to focus on their own resources, be sure your help does not become a substitute for finding their own inner strengths. When you “rescue” someone, it makes him or her helpless. John said, “I want you to give me all the answers.” The reply was, “I promise NOT to do that. But I do promise to help you find your own answers and take responsibility for your own decisions because only you feel your pain, joy, guilt, or satisfaction.” How do you guide others in finding answers themselves?

Helping is craft you can learn. Here are some specific approaches in helping others:

1. Inquire whether they would like you to be there for them; or say you are ready to help and wait for a response. Avoid assuming they want help.

2. Listen to what they are saying and try to understand their feelings. Avoid asking, “Why are you feeling that way?” “Why” indicates that you want a reason or justification.

3. Replay what you are hearing, especially the feelings. “I hear that you felt hurt when your boss said that.”

4. Relate their feelings to your own experience, if you can. “I felt that way too.”

5. Explain what you would do and ask if your input gives them new ideas. Avoid saying, “you should. . .” “Should” implies that they are wrong if they don’t comply. Ask what they want to do.

6. Ask them their choices and tell them the choices you see.

7. Suggest that they write down the pros and cons of their decisions to clarify their thoughts.

Brainstorming together is a beautiful gift to a friend who is troubled. Both of you write down whatever solutions come to mind, no matter how unlikely. Then, ask your friend to cross off whatever solutions he or she is not willing to pursue. Now, look at the remaining possible solutions and work out the details. If no solutions remain, explore the real problem and start brainstorming again.

Perhaps the best ongoing help is modeling healthy behavior yourself. If you focus on the positive side of life, your friends may adopt that attitude and be more positive themselves.

There are some pitfalls to avoid. If you find yourself criticizing or judging a troubled friend, try to think of a more positive approach. The greatest gift is acceptance. Another common impulse is to try to outdo the tale of woe, “If you think that is bad. . .” Instead, concentrate on your friend’s problem. Impatience or comparisons with others only create more inadequacy. Provide reassurance that you understand that it’s not easy to resolve the problem.

You may worry that the mention of suicide will trigger the thought. However, discussion will help a troubled person admit to himself that he has considered this option. You may then say, “You must be in a lot of pain. What can you do to feel better?” If your friend has a definite plan of self-destruction, contact the police, a doctor, or social agency.

No matter how capable you are, sometimes your help may not be accepted. Chronic unhappiness is difficult to deal with. If you have a friend wallowing in pain, try saying, “I hear you are in pain, and I am sure that when you are ready, you will do something about it.” Or perhaps use a more forceful approach, such as “How much longer are you willing to suffer?” or “What are you getting out of suffering?” If you feel drained and not of help say, “I really care about you, and I don’t think that I can personally help but I would like to recommend a professional who I believe can.”

Receiving help is an art. You can cultivate this ability gracefully once you realize that asking for support is a gift demonstrating that you are human and that you too have problems. Start by exploring your problem alone. Complete the sentences: my problem is. . . ; I feel. . . ; I think. . .(name a friend or helpful acquaintance) can help me.

When you approach someone for help, be specific about how much time you need and what you want. Do you want someone to just listen, or are you expecting more direct problem-solving? If your friend cannot help you, find out if he or she knows someone who can. When you find the support you need, thank him or her for caring and compliment yourself for having the courage to reach out to another.

copyright 2006 by Helene Rothschild

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