This episode of the Habitology podcast is specially dedicated to people who love helping other people but sometimes take it too far – into something I call overhelping.
Some people might feel a little uncomfortable or maybe even offended when they hear me talking on this topic of over helping.
So right up front I want to say I’m sorry if this is difficult for you to hear.
But I’m sure once you listen to some examples and hear me out you’ll totally get what I’m saying and you might think about things a little differently from now on.
The Value of Helping
I want to start by saying very clearly that helping other people is a wonderful and admirable thing. There are millions of people in the world who are suffering right now and at any given time, so having people who want to support those people is essential for our society to survive, grow and thrive.
As long as there are people who want to help it means that we’re able to support each other and to get through difficult times.
Support creates a sense of peace. It facilitates recovery from illness. It builds strong workplace cultures. The desire and willingness of people to help each other plays a big role in making those things happen.
I personally have always been somebody who loves helping people and that’s why I became a coach. Now that I work for a coach training school I see a lot of other people like me who just want to help people.
In fact, that’s the number one reason that people sign up for coach training in the first place. That’s why people want to change their careers; so they can do something more meaningful and purposeful, and to help other people for a living.
So, let’s agree right up front that helping other people is valuable and necessary in our world.
With that put to bed let’s now talk about over helping.
Helping vs Overhelping
Before we talk about over helping, let’s talk through what helping means.
I’ll start by saying that the difference between the two is who gets empowered by the helping – the person you are trying to help, or you.
Very simplistically, in a situation where you are truly helping, you are mostly listening, then doing or saying just enough for the other person to find their own answers.
In a situation where you are truly helping, you are mostly listening, then doing or saying just enough for the other person to find their own answers.
When the person you are helping works things out on their own, they feel a rush of confidence at their own success and feel self empowered.
In other words, when people come up with their own ideas in the first place without anybody suggesting anything to them, or leading, or guiding, or steering, they are more likely to build self-confidence and self-belief than if somebody is telling or suggesting what they should do.
I want you to contrast that with over helping, where you provide the solution to the other person, therefore establishing your position as the expert and empowering yourself, bolstering your own confidence.
What happens to the person you’re helping when you have all the answers? They’ve just learned that you know more than they do and that they don’t know enough. They have just been unwittingly disempowered.
Overhelping is when you cross the boundaries and give too much opinion, ideas, suggestions or advice.
It is when you impart your wisdom or thoughts to steer or guide the person you are helping in a way that you think is best for them.
This removes their power of choice, it shows a lack of respect for their ideas and needs, and it shifts the focus away from them and onto you. You become the hero in their journey, not them, so it feels like a hollow victory.
At the worst, over helping results in total disempowerment of the person you are seeking to help.
Over helping often results in maintaining the status quo – that is, the helped person stays stuck – and it can also cause conflict, stalemates, and at worst case the breakdown of relationships.
And in fact, the first sign of Overhelping is resistance or tension in the other person you are trying to help!
I want to give you a couple of real life examples to illustrate this. These are true!
He is the first example.
Two women became acquainted through a social group.
Soon after that, one of the women was struck down with a terrible illness. She lived on her own and was having to do everything for herself.
The other woman happened to hear about the first woman’s challenges, and so she decided that she would be helpful and come around to cooking, washing those sorts of things as she had professional health training and knew she could assist.
This support was initially welcomed, but at some point the woman who was ill started feeling smothered. It was too much.
She wanted time and space to process this on her own without anybody else in her small house taking up her mental and physical space. So she politely asked the other woman not to come anymore.
But this other woman just wanted to help. And being a health professional she felt that she knew better than the woman who was sick.
What ensued was a terrible argument and a terrible falling out between these two women.
But the helper could not reconcile that the invalid didn’t want to be helped and didn’t actually need help. She persisted relentlessly to breaking point.
How might that conflict help a woman who is terribly ill? Sometimes our desire to help defies all logic and we fall into the trap of over helping.
This really illustrates pretty clearly how over helping is more about the person doing the helping then it is about the person receiving the help. It is about the helper feeling good about themselves because they are helping someone.
The Over Excited Expert
Here’s another example of over helping.
Mish is a marathon runner. Her best friend Ally is a little on the heavy side and wants to take up running to lose some weight. Although Ally is outgoing, she is quite self conscious about her weight and is somewhat intimidated by Mish’s achievements.
But Mish is obviously an expert so Ally decides to ask her for help to start running.
Mish is so thrilled that Ally has finally taken the plunge into running and wants some help. She sits with Ally and reassures her. By the way, reassurance is a form of judgment.
Then, Mish helps Ally create a running plan for the next 12 weeks, with gradual increases in pace and distance over the period. Ally is nervous but excited. Mish offered to support her along the way and Ally is keen.
Mish gets so pumped about this plan that she gushes with enthusiasm about Ally’s new running regime. And the more she gushes, the more self conscious Ally becomes. Suddenly, it’s feeling like she has a lot to live up to.
Two weeks in, Ally falls into a slump after a few stressful days at work and doesn’t feel like running. Mish sends a couple of text messages to pump her up, but they go unanswered.
Ally is receiving them and feeling guiltier as time goes on at not responding. Mish persists, and eventually leaves a voicemail with a supposedly motivational message – come on, get back on the horse, you can do it.
But Ally doesn’t see it as motivational. She feels embarrassed that her marathon runner friend is literally chasing her and inadvertently pointing out her mistakes.
It’s no use. She doesn’t have the discipline and can-do attitude toward running that Mish has. She should quit now before she feels like a total failure.
So in that situation, Mish has not acknowledged that Ally is a total beginner and needs to work at her own pace. Mish is not respecting how Ally feels, or noticing her lack of confidence. Ally interprets that as expectations and standards that she can’t reach – because she is not good enough.
These are just two examples.
Overhelping shows up in many other ways – like doing things for others and feeling resentful if they don’t give you enough recognition. Or when needing to help consumes you to the point that you feel lost if you are not helping.
As you can hear, all of these things are much more about the helper than they are about the helpee.
A Coaching Perspective on Helping
In coaching school we are taught that people are more likely to become empowered, and to take responsibility for their own lives, if they come up with their own ideas, answers and solutions.
The most tempting thing for a new coach is to jump in with a ‘have you tried this?’ Or ‘what about that?’ But we must sit there silently and let our clients figure it out for themselves.
You might want to listen to my podcast on empowerment – #53 – I’ll put a link in the show notes.
So just set the scene here is what happens in a coaching session with an experienced coach.
The coach will ask their client all about themselves. The coach will reflect back what they hear the client say.
Then the coach will ask some really broad questions that will get the client to come up with their own answers.
People are more likely to become empowered, and to take responsibility for their own lives, if they come up with their own ideas, answers and solutions.
There is no suggestion or a ‘great idea’ or leading questions or any of that from the coach. Unless the client is specifically asking for ideas and suggestions or unless there is a glaring risk that the coach can see, their job is to stay out of the process.
The hardest thing for the coach at this point is to see their clients struggling with discomfort.
We see our clients feeling unsure of themselves, not believing in themselves, feeling hesitant, worrying about making mistakes, and when we see these things on their faces and we hear these things in their voices, we desperately want to help.
Do you recognise the discomfort of that feeling? Seeing someone struggle to find the answer and just wanting to jump in there and help them?
It’s human nature to want to suggest things, to ask ‘have you thought about this?’ or ‘what about that?’
There’s a psychological term to describe this – it’s called the Righting Reflex.
But in that moment when we want to make things right, what we’re doing is robbing that person of the opportunity to stand up for themselves and to make some decisions for themselves. We are robbing their moment of self empowerment.
It is such an important and critical time in the clients journey to becoming empowered, that we want to just be silent to avoid interfering with, or blocking the aha moment.
So the coach really needs to get out of the way and let the client do the work even if it’s a little bit uncomfortable at first. The reward will be way sweeter and greater when this happens.
Now this is great if you’ve done coach training and you understand these principles and you’ve had a lot of practice with clients.
Let’s say that you’ve become very good at listening and not interfering. That’s fabulous because it means that when clients come to see you they can truly become empowered. It means they feel confident to make decisions for themselves, and make choices that are meaningful and relevant for them.
It means that they will start to create success on their own terms and feel good about it and this will have a flow-on effect in all areas of their lives including all of the relationships they are currently having their lives.
How to Stop Overhelping
There are four things you need to do if you want to stop Overhelping.
The first is to become self aware; to become the watcher of your thoughts, so you can notice the urge to help when it comes up. That gives you time to temper your thoughts and head off Overhelping at the pass.
The second thing is to listen to and truly hear what the other person wants and needs – before you offer help.
The third is to ask the person how they would like you to help them.
And finally, whatever they say – honour it – do what they ask, and nothing more.
The difference between helping and Overhelping is who ends up being empowered – the helpee, or the helper.
The first sign of Overhelping is resistance or tension or defensiveness in the person being helped. The four step process to stop Overhelping is to:
- Watch your thoughts
- Listen to the helpee
- Ask how you can help
- Respect their request.
Ready to learn how to give the right kind of help?
If you need assistance with Overhelping, visit www.melaniejwhite.com/habitology and learn more about how I can help you to help people effectively and with confidence and clear boundaries.
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