Spouses, sisters-in-law, and office buddies are forever asking your advice, but they dismiss every suggestion you make. Martha Beck shows you how to give friends and relatives who are stuck what they really need.
Margaret's twin girls were halfway through high school when she started thinking about returning to school herself.
"I've always wanted to finish my degree," she told me. "Maybe get a master's, even. I'd like to teach."
"Cool!" I said. Margaret had been complaining of boredom, and I knew she'd thrive in an academic environment.
"But," she told me, her voice tightening, "there are problems. Jeff and the girls are used to me being home, cleaning, cooking...."
"Have you talked to them about it?"
"No, because there's more," said Margaret. "We only have two cars. Jeff drives one, and sometimes the girls need the other one in the evenings."
"Well, you can take classes when they're in school."
"But sometimes they drive to school. Then I don't have a car until afternoon."
"Then take the bus. Or have the kids take the bus. Or have Jeff drop them off. Or sign up for distance learning."
I was getting into quite a lather of life-coachy problem solving, but Margaret would have none of it. Every time I lobbed a suggestion, she'd smack it back at me like a tennis pro. After a 10- or 15-minute rally, I finally realized that the real issue wasn't Margaret's continuing education. It was something I call "help resistance."
There may be infinite reasons Margaret and others like her ask for help and then reject it; some people may be deeply ambivalent, others biologically anxious, or a few unconsciously combative. Whatever their motivation, people who resist help can frustrate you half to death, batting back every solution they request with the surreal persistence of Venus and Serena combined. The next time you encounter someone who resists help, I recommend stopping the fruitless verbal rally and addressing the real problem directly.
One of my personal mottoes is "Love it, leave it, or lead it." When faced with a problem, I allow myself these three options—and only these three. "Love it" means peacefully accept whatever's happening. If that's not possible, I may be able to "leave it," simply walk away from the whole dilemma. The third option, "lead it," requires that I recognize and use whatever power I have (even if I feel helpless). If I can't devise a solution on my own, I must "lead" my helpers by asking clear, purposeful questions and taking good advice when I get it. I've found that the "three Ls" are invaluable when you find yourself trading volleys with someone who doesn't want to change.
Loving It: The Pollyanna Response
If someone you like goes into a spate of help resistance, try loving your way out. Say something like this: "Well, that's quite a conundrum, but I know you'll figure it out. You're so smart and resourceful. Go for it!"
This response will frustrate most help resisters, who often want sympathy and concern, not cheerleading. They might plead with you, saying: "But I'm really worried! I don't know what to do!" If this happens, just keep reiterating your support, like Pollyanna at a pep rally: "Yes, and I'm absolutely positive you'll do the right thing. Hooray for you!"
Knowing how to "love it" is like having a killer forehand. Every time a floundering friend or family member serves gloom and doom, you bounce it back with adulatory optimism. Eventually, your opponent will tire and leave the court.
Leaving It: The Guy Response
If you have no interest in maintaining cordial relations with people who resist help, there's a quick way to get them to leave you alone—forever. I also call this the Guy Response, because men (who aren't cursed with the so-called "tend and befriend" hormones that make us females offer sweaters and sandwiches to people who are actively burglarizing our homes) often do it naturally. To use the Guy Response, listen as the person describes the problem, then say: "Wow, sounds like you're screwed. Have you seen my car keys?"
If the friend keeps trying to get your attention ("Are you listening to me? I've got a problem here!"), you can say, "I think I left them in the car. I'm going to check." Then leave.
There's a variation on this response, which I enjoy using on help resisters who bemoan First World problems like a delay in scheduling liposuction, or the inability to get people to weedwack their yards for less than minimum wage. While staring at the person with an expression of shock and awe, say, "Oh my God, that's horrible." (You can find suitable facial expressions by going to YouTube and searching for the terms "dramatic chipmunk" and "dramatic lemur." Seriously—check them out.) Then go look for your keys.
These "leave it" reactions are extremely effective, and can be quite enjoyable if you don't mind being crossed off a few holiday greeting-card lists. Wherever you want to avoid that side effect, try the more complex and thoughtful "lead it" strategy.
Leading It: The Constructive Response
When someone you really love goes into help-resistance mode, it may be time for you to lead the situation. In this case, that means asking for the information you need to be genuinely helpful. Say something like this:
"I can tell you need some kind of support from me, but I'm not exactly sure what it looks like. Do you want me to help you brainstorm solutions? Should I just be a neutral backboard, so you can bounce ideas off me? Or do you just need someone to understand how frustrated you're feeling? Tell me what you need. I'm here for you 100 percent."
If you say this sincerely, even many people who habitually resist help will stop mindlessly backhanding your ideas and think through their real desires. This creates an atmosphere of honesty and relaxation, where real problem solving is most likely to occur—and it also improves your relationship. In tennis scoring, I believe they call it "love."
Every now and again, I get into a mental match with a particularly resistant and annoying help resister: me. I hear my own voice, talking either to myself or a frustrated friend: "I need to work out, but I can't exercise in the morning because I always get injured when I do. By noon it's too hot, and I hate exercising indoors. And at night I'm just exhausted." I can only imagine how frustrating this must be for my friends and family, given that it makes me want to knock myself unconscious with my own racket. Fortunately, the same approaches that work on others work splendidly when I'm the source of the problem.
The fastest way to bring change to a resistant situation is to accept it. Don't believe me? Try this: Think of a subject where you feel ambivalent (you want a baby but worry about your career; you're environmentally sensitive but can't imagine surrendering your Humvee; you're strictly vegan except that you so adore veal binges). Whatever your issue, write it down. Now, decide to do one thing or the other. Now! Right now!
You probably noticed that pressure spikes your anxiety, anger, rage, panic...in a word, your resistance. The best case is that it shoves you into quick decisions that don't really resolve your ambivalence. So let's try another approach. Let's say that for the next hour, you'll simply accept that you're not sure what to do. That's okay. Uncertainty won't kill you. For one hour, let it be.
If you do this mindfully, you'll feel a sense of relief, a space opening around the difficult issue. This enhances creativity—so, paradoxically, accepting indecisiveness actually frees your mind to devise effective solutions. That's where the other two strategies come in.
Perhaps you feel obligated to do something you deeply don't want to do, such as watching political debates or contacting your PTA group leader. You may be resisting all suggestions because what you really want to do is simply "leave it." Quit the hated job. Don't return the e-mail. Just say nothing.
This is a daring solution, but think: Is "leaving" the problem really scarier than coming up with reasons not to leave the problem? If your answer is "yes," you may have reached a true impasse. Strangely enough, it's when you feel really helpless that you must pick up your authority and "lead" the situation.
You not only can but must lead situations where you genuinely need help. No one except you can say exactly what's stopping you, exactly where you're blocked by confusion or ignorance. Take charge not by demanding and then ignoring the help that's offered but by figuring out as clearly as you can just what you need, then requesting assistance from people who, in your judgment, are likely to be able to provide it. Even if they can't help you, they can usually refer you to someone else who can.
When Margaret did this, she understood her real problem wasn't the logistical difficulty of returning to school but her own anxiety about doing something new. Once she admitted that, she chose the hero's solution: Feel the fear and do it anyway. Of course, she did need her family's assistance. She asked them if they'd share housework and driving. They exceeded her expectations, offering all sorts of suggestions, which Margaret gratefully accepted. Game, set, and match to Team Margaret.
If you follow the three Ls whenever you encounter help resistance, you'll find yourself playing a lot less verbal tennis. Excuse-making, whining, and pointless reiteration will disappear from your life. Not only will people who ask for help (but ignore it) cease seeking you out but you'll find yourself more capable of either peacefully accepting periods of indecision or getting the effective assistance that moves you forward quickly and decisively. All the energy that once went into complaining, suggesting, and complaining some more (back and forth and back and forth and back and frigging forth) will align to propel you toward adventures and achievements.
I'm absolutely sure you can do this—you with that clever mind, that resourceful nature, that winning smile. So get going, kiddo!
What's that? You're not sure of yourself? You have doubts? Things are more complicated than that?
Wow, I had no idea. I guess you're screwed. Have you seen my car keys?