I remember a lunchtime many decades ago when I decided to help a man with a white cane cross the street, insisting that I would get him safely to the other side. He was resisting. I was puzzled. Here I was lending a helping hand at a busy intersection during the lunch hour rush, and this man was protesting all the way.

By the time we arrived on the other side of the street, I was frustrated. I kept repeating that we were now on the South side of Laurier at the corner of Bank, but he was no longer listening. He seemed lost. I suggested that I stay with him and help him cross the next street, but he grumbled louder and louder.  Eventually, in a high pitched voice, he told me to leave him alone. I was embarrassed.

I started walking away, but couldn’t help looking behind me. To my surprise, he was attempting to cross the street again to go back to where I had initially found him. Goodness, what now!  I decided to continue on my way back to the office, hoping he would ask somebody else or find his way somehow. I felt guilty and sad. What had gone awry?

Many years later, I was sitting with a group of persons with disabilities who were members of the organizing committee for an upcoming conference on creating the right conditions for success in the workplace, a conference they hired me to facilitate. As I was listening to these professionals speak to their objectives and the various themes they wanted to cover, it became clear that they were focused on leveraging their abilities, not disabilities.

They were determined to create work environments where they could be independent and productive.  They expressed frustrations about others thinking they were helpless and imposing solutions that didn’t meet their needs.

My mind flashed back to the old man with the cane and my determination to help him, no matter what. I cringed as I remembered how I was convinced I knew better than he did where to take him. I had eyes and he didn’t, so why not let me do the work? Wrong! Had I actually asked him if he needed help? Likely not. Did he really need my help? He didn’t ask for it.

Fast forward to today, I ask myself: How many times in my line of work do I rush to help folks who are simply looking to find their own way?

When coaches jump to the rescue, aren’t we teaching helplessness and actually undermining confidence?  Confidence comes from knowing you can overcome odds. If you are never allowed to fall, how can you trust your ability to get up again?

I sometimes need to remember that there can be such a thing as helping too much, even when the situation seems to be screaming for my intervention. Holding back, letting others find their own solution at their own pace may actually free a person to grow, thereby paving the way for longer term success. The ugly alternative is increased resentment towards the helpers because helplessness is rarely a goal.

I hope the next time my superhero rescue instinct starts to kick in, I’ll have the wisdom to hold back and offer support from the sidelines, as required, without stepping onto the field – where a coach doesn’t belong.

Is there such a thing as helping too much in your experience?  Let me know in the comments.

10 thoughts on “Is there such a thing as helping too much?”

  1. Thank you for your blog. Yes, you can help too much and become an enabler or a caretaker, which is when you are disempowering the other person, to his or her detriment. When you get to that point, you are not helping at all. With the years and a dose of wisdom, I have learned to apply the principles of servant leadership in all my affairs. I’m always working at practicing and perfecting this approach!

    1. Dominique Dennery

      Thank you for sharing your journey Carole. You lead by being in service of, rather than lead by the nose! What a difference it makes for both the leader and the follower.

  2. Wow! Your truth speaks volumes! Been there, done that!

    A coach is supposed to coach, right? A caregiver is supposed to care and give, right? How do we uniquely define the nominalizations of these self-imposed identities for ourselves AND what do our beliefs, values, attitudes about them presuppose for the strategies and mechanisms we use to move through our worlds, aiming for expected satisfaction for good deeds done? What happens, inside, where we live, when we discover that our compassion for our personal perception of the human condition, generalized, goes unexpectedly unrequited?

    I have been on both sides of the equation – the coach and the coached – the caregiver and care recipient. Relating is core to it all. The elements of giving and receiving are core to how we relate. Giving and receiving are the back and the front of the same hand. Both carry the power to enable; both carry the power to empower. Choose; when is one not the other? Perhaps the greatest support we can be for ourselves and for others is to STOP, BREATHE and – as you have already made reference to, Dominique – QUESTION. Questions give pause to open doors; actions without questions, on the other hand, presuppose answers already formed as judgments and conclusions, generalized through cultural conditioning and programming. The age old belief: ‘Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you’ has become, I think, a mindless and tired tenet for moving through our words. What would that tenet evoke differently in us, if we were really awake to what it can mean?

    How can our ways of relating with Self and Other expand to satiate respect, integrity and generosity of spirit in our cosmos? I offer this question: ‘How can I best appreciate this person and this experience in ways that will best appreciate, my Self, Other and the planet?’ Even if my visceral response is one which guides me to not act, still, I have engaged in mindfully asking the question.

    No need to look for answers. Questions always presuppose them. 🙂

    How does it get any better than that?!

    With gratitude for your contribution to my life, Dominique….

    1. Dominique Dennery

      Thank you Sheila. Your words are powerful. What if we surrender to the power of questions both for us and for others, rather than focusing on answers full of judgments and conclusions. This requires staying awake to how we related to self and others. And yes, I note your beautiful reminder to stop and breathe!

  3. Louise Poliquin

    Bonjour Dominique,
    Ton texte me rappelle une phrase que j’ai apprise d’une collègue que je respecte énormément. Quand un-e participant-e l’approchait pour lui raconter un enjeu, durant une pause de 10 minutes, elle écoutait pendant 5 minutes puis demandait : Comment est-ce que je peux t’aider? Et la suite était, en général, limpide pour les deux personnes. Merveilleux petits mots.

    1. Dominique Dennery

      Superbe! Je te l’ai entendu dire à tes collègues aussi, dont moi. Une belle question qui permet à l’autre de mettre l’accent sur ce qui compte vraiment ou encore de se rendre compte qu’elle ou lui n’a pas besoin d’aide. Merci.

  4. Jagoda Capkun Bacic

    Dominique, totally enjoyed the post and all the comments. Beautifully said. It’s so hard to keep that problem solvin at bay. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Dominique Dennery

      A tough habit to break. I agree Jagoda! It’s so much part of our social conditioning. When you add to that our professional training as consultants/advisors/trainers we have to work doubly hard at letting go of the saviour role. Thanks for weighing on this thread. Take care.

  5. Merci Dominique pour ton histoire. je me suis tellement vue!!! et ma réflexion est la suivante: En agissant pour son bien, sans son consentement nous pouvons facilement devenir envahisseur autant physiquement que psychologiquement. Même si notre intention d’aider à la base est bonne, nos actions peuvent facilement ne pas être interpretées ainsi. Mais la question qui m’interpèle ici (et chacun à sa propre réponse)c’est qu’est ce qui me pousse autant à vouloir aider que j’en deviens envahissant? HUM…

    1. Dominique Dennery

      Quelle belle réflexion Edith! En anglais un de mes mentors me rappelait la distinction clé entre “rescue model” vs “responsibility model”. Quelle est notre motivation interne quand on courre à la rescousse de l’autre plutôt que d’encourager la responsabilisation? Que cherche-t-on en créant consciemment ou non une dépendance?. Repenser notre rapport d’aide aux autres nous amène à examiner le lien entre nos valeurs et nos comportements. Merci de cet échange.

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