How does one person have a positive effect on another? How can we better understand the ingredients and limitations of helping relationships?
Let me start with a quick story.
Meghan watches as her mother finish a telephone call.
“Mommy, why are you crying?” she asks gently.
“I’m okay,” mommy sighs, “I’m okay.”
Meghan leaves the room and comes back moments later.
“When I’m sad, I hold on to Mr. Brown,” she says, handing over a teddy bear to her mother.
Meghan does a lot of things in this little exchange. Her actions encapsulate what it means to help others. She empathizes with, holds, or acknowledges her mother’s sadness, without being overwhelmed by it. She doesn’t implore her mother to stop crying. She doesn’t burst into tears herself. In addition, Meghan’s able to share her treasured toy (which is also a coping mechanism) with her mother. She’s able to graciously share her best with her mother.
A helping relationship is one where we honor (and empathize with) what another person is going through, while sharing our best with them. The honoring part is important, because people are constantly assessing whether we’re still with them emotionally, or at least making the effort to do so. They certainly won’t be happy if we openly challenge or dismiss them, or if we invalidate their feelings with advice.
Meghan’s actions also help us understand the limitations of helping relationships. In real life, it can of course take a long time before we understand the complexity of someone else’s situation. Or we may not be able to fully empathize with a situation at all (eg. men understanding childbirth). It can also take time before we can find something useful to share. When we do share, it may not connect or be appropriate, for entirely valid and subjective reasons (maybe they just don’t like teddy bears). This explains why there’s no magic formula to finding a helper that suits a given individual.
Finally, I want to talk about the rewards of helping others. The more Meghan practices empathizing with others and offering her best, the better at it she becomes. She’ll be able to do it in more diverse situations. Her responses will mature (it won’t just be limited to offering a teddy bear). She becomes more resilient. In a crisis, she’ll be able to calmly assess the situation, and steer people towards the positive. She leads in a crisis.
Helping people is a skill that can be understood, practiced, and honed. It makes us stronger, wiser, and better leaders. Most importantly, it’s something we can all learn to do more often.