The best way to help


There is a nasty long-standing myth that does a lot of harm to humanity. It has destroyed careers, and it’s made the very people who are there to support a leader feel very, very small. If you are a human, you’re familiar with the myth and may even had a starring role in it.

The myth is that to truly help others, we must give advice and tell them everything we know.

The consequences of the myth

I was the subject of this sort of “help” in a small way recently and it reminded me that when someone does this, it can make me feel “less than” if I let it. Luckily, I knew enough about the myth to not allow it to pull me down for long.

Here is a conversation that happened in a local wine shop:

Me: “Can you please help me to find the organic sulfite-free reds?”

Clerk: “Sure, but you should be aware that red wine can never be sulfite-free“.

Me: “Thank you. I knew that, and didn’t mean to use the term ‘sulfite-free’; I should have asked for the location of your wines with no additional sulfites added.”

Clerk: “Most wine producers add additional sulfites to preserve the wine and there isn’t any proof that the additional sulfites cause problems for most people…..etc., etc., blah, blah…..”

As he droned on for several minutes, all I could think about was how I felt as if I was being talked down to, and I just wanted to grab the wine, pay for it, and get out of there. The clerk let me know everything he knew about organic wine and “no additional sulfites added” even though I’d already indicated that I had knowledge of the subject.

The most important thing to him was to let me know everything he knew. He didn’t listen to me. He didn’t ask me any additional questions about what I wanted or knew on the subject. I don’t know if I’ll go back there because of how small he made me feel.

Default to listening

I once heard about a study that asked doctors how long they listened to their patients without interruption during office hours. The average response from the doctors was three minutes. Yet when they were observed with their patients, they actually only averaged about twenty seconds of listening before interrupting.

Those doctors think the same way most leaders might; that the best way for them to help others is to talk, talk, talk. When in reality, too much talking has the opposite effect. I can’t help but wonder if better listening might help heal their patients by making them feel heard.

People want to be listened to. It makes them feel like they matter, that what they have to say is important. Leaders are in the perfect spot to listen and to demonstrate what it means to actually hear and understand others.

So instead of helping by telling others everything you know, default to listening. You might just be surprised how many people you help (while helping yourself to be a better leader!).



I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

6 comments on “The best way to help

  1. My personal feeling is that situations like the above arise for one of two reasons:

    1. Their personal communication strategy – some people love the details and don’t understand that many people don’t.
    2. Some people are asked for their opinions and insights so infrequently that when they get the opportunity, they go over board.

  2. Hi Josh, do you think that those leaders who feel compelled to give the details or their opinions and insight could learn to listen better? Would it make a difference to their ability to lead?

  3. Mary Jo, specific to the wine shop situation, I think it has something to do with people who own or work in specialty shops like that – they feel compelled to ‘share’ their vast knowledge, when all we want are directions to the aisle.
    Now, using that experience as a metaphor for leadership – it is a hazard that we all have to be aware of. We can easily fall into the ‘already heard that’ syndrome, especially if we deal with problems and issues from staff on a regular basis – we pick up a few words or phrases, and immediately jump to the conclusion that it is what we have already heard before.
    The ability to effectively communicate begins with the ability to truly listen.

    George Bernard Shaw summed it up pretty well:
    “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

    Best regards,

  4. Thanks Carl. Yes, there was a lot of richness in that exchange that can be taken as a lesson for leaders: the impact of telling all you know on the receiver, the loss of a learning opportunity if I had been asked what I needed to know about these wines, the fact that the clerk didn’t observe my body language that said, “I just want to get my wine and get out” and a more pleasant exchange that didn’t happen if he’d simply asked me a social question.

    Amazing what a small exchange between two people can do, isn’t it?

  5. I constantly fight the urge to talk. But just as you have described in the post: the best way to help is often to listen. If repressing the urge to give answers can be combined with the ability to ask questions that forces the person approaching you in the first place to think. It is my experience is that such an approach often produces more creative solutions to the problems than I could have dreamt of.
    At the same time: it cultivates an environment where it is required to think.

    Today my first response when my employees face me with a problem is “what do you think?”

  6. Hi Soren, if you are an extrovert, you may “think out loud”, making it doubly hard to keep from talking. However, I agree with your suggestion that listening may be a replacement for talking, if the focus is deep. And good questions help others to think. Thanks for your great comments; I appreciate that you’ve noticed the advantages of listening and inquiry!

Comments are closed.