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The Protocol For Help

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Not all those who wander are lost, and not all those who struggle want help. For example, productive struggle is important in learning, and people sometimes just want to get through things on their own. Sometimes the person doesn’t perceive the issue in question as a problem at all.

Offers of help, if carelessly phrased, can often seem judgmental or unfriendly, and they can perpetuate power dynamics or privilege structures in ways that are really uncomfortable for the person you’re talking to.

So when you see someone struggling, it’s useful to get answers to these questions before trying to help.

1. “Would you like some help?”

If they don’t want help, stay out of the way. Let people be in charge of how, when, and whether they get help.

When you’re struggling, it’s exhausting to have to constantly fend off well-intentioned but unhelpful offers of assistance. Starting by asking whether the person actually wants help is a good way to avoid adding to their burdens.

2. “… from me?”

Just because a person wants help doesn’t mean they want it from you. That’s okay, and it’s not necessarily a personal attack or affront to you. If you want to be respectful, sometimes that means accepting that a person doesn’t want your help.

You might also consider, before asking, whether you have any special knowledge or experience that might be applicable to the situation. If so, mention it briefly, saying something like “I went through something similar” or “I’ve dealt with that before” before asking whether they want help from you. If you don’t have special knowledge, be especially humble in your offer of help.

If they want help from someone else, ask whether they’d like your help making it happen.

3. “… what kind of help would you like?”

It’s appropriate to offer ideas, but ultimately it should rest with the person you’re helping to decide what kind of help they want.

If they make a request, consider whether it’s something you’re willing to offer. If yes, great! If not, talk about it and see if you can find some middle ground.

4. “Would you like it right now?”

Now may not be a good time. To be helpful, make it fit their timeframe, not just yours.

If they do want help but don’t want it immediately, ask when would be a better time. See whether you’re able to offer it then. If not, propose an alternative.

5. “Is this the kind of help you wanted?”

Assuming that they do want help, from you, and that you’re offering the right kind and at a convenient time, it’s good to check in periodically to see how you’re doing. Often people’s needs change, and if you want to be most helpful, you’ll adjust.

Adapted and developed, with permission, from ideas by Brandon Martin-Anderson and Gretchen Caverly.

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