Quite often we’ll move in to help others based on our instincts. We’ll react to the events and circumstances to then wonder why or how we helped.
That can easily work out well and lead to a shared experience that becomes a contribution to building a supportive relationship.
When things don’t work out as well as we hoped, a bit of guidance to reflect might help.
The easiest approach is to blame the other for our failed attempt to help. However, that doesn’t help us to learn how we’ve come to contribute to that failure. In a relationship, a problem will never be only one-sided. There always is something about us we can learn.
One of the most important questions is to know if the help we reacted with resulted from a clear request. While we might think that it is the case, it rarely is as clear as we thought. And this is also true for the help we offered. There are many ways we’ve learned to support others. Among these, there are given social norms, perceived politeness, or our read of body language that easily prompt us into action. And it will often be accepted, maybe even for the same reasons.
Once we realize that there might not have been a clear ask, we have the opportunity to try to clarify what might be asked of us, or how we can help. And that’s when we’ve already stepped into helping.
Something about our experience or our beliefs prompted us to step in.
There are four elements we can consider. These are our ethics, the information available to us, the importance we give to that relationship, and how a given situation resonates with our experience.
When it comes to helping, our ethics will be closely connected with our status and we’ll be asking ourselves the question if our behavior will make us proud or if it is the right thing to do. We would intervene if we couldn’t answer these questions positively. But it also means that this view on ethics is very personal. It will also be impacted by our anxiety that we might not be doing the right thing or end up not looking good. It can be based on our upbringing and everything we learned or it can be something we elaborated for ourselves through an iterative process.
If we have good quality, that is also quite complete information, it becomes easy for us to step in and help based on that information. In the best case helping will be evident and not even a question. And naturally, this is also a place where it can be easy to gain more complete information to know if we can provide help and if so which one would be most appropriate.
Whenever a relationship is important to us, we’ll find ourselves pulled into helping when an occasion to help is available. The relation can make it more relevant for us to help or less possible not to help. A close relationship asks us to do what we can and find the most appropriate way to contribute to the relationship. It doesn’t necessarily mean to do what we are asked for, but it does mean to do what we understand to be the best support in the given situation.
And then there is our own experience and how it is triggered by the situation the other is in. Either we identify with the problem, or we see a problem that we wish away and seek to make disappear. For many, this can for example happen when they sense someone else’s anxiety. If it connects with their anxiety or if it makes them uncomfortable, people will try to make the anxiety disappear by reassuring the other.
It’s rarely only one of the points above, but some priorities repeat themselves and that we might be able to learn from.