To Help One Another
The Fundamentals of Working Together Creatively
When people work together, there are only two roles available: the helped and the helper. And, if you want to work together well, the first and most important thing to establish is: who is who.
When someone has asked for help, then they have a special role to play. Only they know what help they need. And only they know when they’re done.
Sure — other people will have opinions about what help they need. And sometimes (most of the time) the person asking for help won’t even know what help they need. But, in the end, only you know if you’re hungry. Only you know if you’re full.
As such, being helped comes with quite a responsibility. Because if someone thinks they’re helping, but they’re not — because you haven’t explained what you really need — then you have a responsibility to explain what you really need. Otherwise everyone’s time is wasted.
Because of this, the most important question for the helped to ask themselves when working with other people is:
“Is this helping?”
When someone offers to help, they can’t actually know what they’re meant to do unless they know two things:
- Who am I helping?
- What do they need?
And these might seem like the two most obvious and self-evident couple of questions in the world. But, have a think about any group undertaking you’re involved in — a company, a relationship, a project…anything — and check: do you actually know the answers to both of those questions? Right now? How about all the time? In every working relationship you have?
The thing with being the helper is that it’s sometimes appealing just because you don’t have to be responsible for everything. The buck does definitely not stop with you. And, sometimes, that’s an appealing enough position to be in that we never get around to asking the fundamental and defining question for the helper:
“Am I helping?”
There is a strange taboo around the word ‘help’. A lot of people don’t like talking about it.
When it comes to work culture, we tend to talk about the person being helped by using words like ‘the founder’ or ‘the CEO’ or ‘the entrepreneur’ — and often neglect to factor in that those people who have thousands of people working for them are actually people who need a lot of help.
Maybe it’s because the ever popular image of the self-reliant, earth-bestriding, hero entrepreneur doesn’t fit with the more vulnerable and considerably less popular image of ‘someone who needs help’.
Or maybe it’s because “Did you get help with this?” is the most shameful and damning question you can ask a small child who has handed in some suspiciously accomplished homework. And maybe none of us have got over that yet.
In fact, sometimes, the taboo is so strong you can walk into a room full of people working together and ask them who is helping who with what and they won’t know. Because it’s just easier to show up every day and just do some things than actually talk about each other in term like “I’m here to help this person” or “I need help with this and that”. Sometimes even uttering the words “I need help” can be so hard we’d rather just not get helped.
The Art of Helping and Being Helped
Helping and being helped is all about surrender. As if the word ‘help’ wasn’t a big enough taboo, why not go ahead and throw surrender on top of it?
When two people work together creatively, they both have to surrender. The helper has to surrender — saying “I am not in charge of the work here. This other person is in charge and I am helping them.” The person being helped has to surrender saying — “I can’t do all of this by myself. Please can I hand over a piece of my work to you and trust that you will do it as well as I would do it?”
When two people work together creatively, they both have to take charge. The helped has to take charge of their own need. And that means saying “what I need your help with is this”, rather than saying “well, maybe we can decide between us what to do”. And the latter is obviously very tempting (and popular), because it’s a way of pretending that you’re not in charge and it’s a way of pretending that no one has to surrender to anyone and that no one is asking for help and no one is ‘just a helper’. The helper has to take charge of the piece they are helping with. Even if you’re just carrying a chair from one side of a room to another — if you’ve been given responsibility for doing that, then while you’re doing that, you’re in charge of doing that.
The Art of Helping
The art of helping is:
- only helping when the work you do to help is work that you need to do anyway
- only helping people who need help and only helping them when they need the help.
And it’s such a hard discipline to master. Because it’s so easy to fall into helping someone who looks like they need help. Or helping people who say they need help — but who actually didn’t mean they needed help now. Or someone who needs help now — but doesn’t want your help.
One of the most exhausting things in the world is trying to help someone who doesn’t actually want help. It’s like pushing an unwilling elephant up a flight of stairs. Or trying to help an old lady out of her car without realising actually she was trying to get into the car. Or trying to help someone to get fit when they secretly really have no interest whatsoever in getting fit.
To help another human being we actually have to understand another human being. Just starting work isn’t enough. And even doing what they say isn’t enough. We actually have to use wisdom and empathy and compassion and careful listening to understand to the best of our ability what they actually need. And — maybe even more challenging — helping another human being means also mastering the art of understanding what we actually need too.
There is no quicker way to burn out than to work away at helping someone by doing something you don’t need to do.
There is no worse helper than one who is thoroughly unmotivated and unenergised because they’re doing something they don’t need to do.
There is no quicker way to sour a friendship or a working relationship than through repressing and denying your own needs in order to serve someone else’s.
And there is nothing more precious and powerful than the effortless flowing harmony of one person helping another in such a way that both of them are getting what they need.
The Art of Being Helped
The art of being helped is:
- listening to yourself with subtle intensity in order to establish with real clarity what it is you actually need
- asking for help often and clearly and only accepting it from people who will actually benefit from helping you.
A question that rarely gets asked in industrial work environments: if you need someone to do something, are you better off asking someone who doesn’t want or need to do that thing or asking someone who does want and need to do that thing?
And it’s a question that doesn’t get asked very often because the answer is obvious: get help from people who want and need to help. And that’s the secret to working together creatively.
When you’re working together, the work is effortless if you both know the scope of the piece of work that the helper is doing: the help. And, if you’re doing it properly, there are steps to take.
Here’s how to define the scope of a piece of work you’re doing as a helper.
- Find out who you’re helping.
- Find out what they are trying to do.
- Find out what help they need.
- Check if there is anything that they need help with that is also something that you need to do.
- Where there is a shared need, offer help.
- If they accept the offer of help and you believe that they do actually genuinely want and need your help, then start helping.
- When you have met the shared need — or if the need stops being one that you share — then stop helping.