Have you ever tried to be helpful but found that others experienced you as annoying? Did you feel resentful that your efforts weren’t appreciated? What did you do wrong?

First, a few scenarios:

  • You notice your young son struggling to complete a puzzle. You pick up a piece and show him where it goes. You’re stunned when he picks up the puzzle, dumps it on the floor and shouts, “I don’t want to do this anymore; this is a stupid puzzle.”
  • You ask your teen how her day went. She tells you that her friend was ignoring her and hanging out with other girls. You try to console her, telling her, “Don’t let it bother you; she’s allowed to talk with other girls. Besides, you’ve got lots of other friends.” Your daughter gives you that exasperated look, runs to her room and slams the door, yelling, “You don’t understand anything.”
  • You hear your spouse grumbling about how his pants don’t fit him anymore. You tell him, “Well, what do you expect? You eat junk food and never exercise. You’ve got to make some changes.” He shakes his head in disgust and responds, “Yeah, you’ve got an answer for everything, don’t you?”
  • You know that your spouse is nervous about her new work-from-home business. “You’ll do fine!” you tell her. “Who knows, you might become one of these millionaire moms whose start-up morphs into a national corporation.” She shoots you a look of disgust and says, “Leave me alone, will you?!”

You may be thinking, “What’s so bad about these responses? Why aren’t they helpful?”

Here’s the problem: Frustrated people typically don’t want you to tell them what they’re doing wrong or rush in to fix the problem. Why not? Isn’t that what helping out is all about? Yes, but here’s the rub.

  • When you rush in to fix their problem without being invited to do so, you may be making the other person feel inadequate. Doing for others when they can do for themselves is rarely experienced as helpful. Yes, you may be able to do it faster, better and with less effort, but taking over because you’re impatient and want it done already leaves the other person feeling resentful.
  • You may be offering advice before you understand the nuances of the situation. It’s helpful to ask questions that will allow you to know more about the history, subtlety and nuances of what’s happening before you offer advice. Otherwise, your words may well miss the mark.
  • You may be experienced as intrusive. People have their own lives to live — even little kids. They are not carbon copies of us. They are unique human beings who have their own ways of doing things. They have different talents, desires, wishes and temperaments. And, though your advice may be right on, it can be experienced as “You’ve got to do things my way.”
  • You’re not showing respect for their struggle. It’s tough not to jump in with help when you see a loved one struggling. Yet, how is your loved one going to grow if he is not allowed to do take on challenges for himself? Doing for others isn’t a way to show love if it prevents them from wrestling with their own issues, making their own mistakes and discovering their own way.

So what should you do if you want to help? Keep your mouth shut and say nothing? Possibly, but not necessarily. Here’s how you might intervene that would probably produce better results.

  • Don’t jump in with advice right away; let your loved one come to you for assistance.
  • Express empathy for the emotion before you offer any suggestions.
  • Consider phrasing your counsel as a question, such as, “would you want to…?”
  • Minimize your use of the phrases “you have to” and “you should.”
  • Ask questions that begin with “how” or “what,” rather than “why.” “Why” questions tend to put people on the defensive.
  • When asked a question, consider reflecting it back to your loved one: “How were you thinking of handling it?”
  • Suggest other resources besides yourself. “Do you think it might be helpful if you spoke to your coach, your boss, a psychologist?”
  • Avoid couching your advice with criticism such as, “this wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t…”

When you’re really being helpful, it feels terrific — not only for you but for the other person.