Helping others succeed in their jobs requires more than generosity. You need to understand what matters to them. For example, have you ever started counseling a direct report about his career and then noticed that he wanted to bolt the room? Or given a peer resources for her big project, then found yourself on the receiving end of a stiff arm?
That’s not fun. Surely, there is better way to give people the help they actually want. What is it?
The Case of the Runny Nose
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I got a clue to this mystery a few months ago with my then four-year-old son. His nose was running, but he wasn’t doing anything about it. Like a good parent, I grabbed a Kleenex and gently wiped his nose. Easy peasy, right?
Not according to my son.
“Daddy, I want my mucus back.”
“It’s in the tissue.” I opened it up to show him.
“No, Daddy. I want my mucus back in my nose!”
That’s a new one, I thought. How do you get mucus back in the nose? I starting racking my brain for possible methods.
“Daddy you are stupid!”
Could you simmer down? I’m trying to figure out a way to defeat gravity and reverse your body’s natural physiological processes?
“Daddy why are you so stupid?
“Look, Z, I know you’re upset. Give me a minute.” Doesn’t he know that I’m working hard on his original request? I don’t have time for new questions. Plus, I haven’t yet figured out why I am so stupid.
“Daddy why are you a butt face?”
“Z, you know that in our family that’s not how we talk about people.” This isn’t going well. And I’ve lost my train of thought.
“Daddy I don’t like you.”
No good deed goes unpunished.
I grabbed the Kleenex, marched into the kitchen, and threw it into the trash can.
Surely there is a better way to give people the help they want.
My mistake in this situation (one of many) was to wipe my son’s nose without first asking him. I acted physically without first making an offer. My son had no opportunity to signal whether or not he wanted my help. Because I didn’t make an offer, he had no freedom to accept my offer, decline it, or make a counteroffer (“Hand me the tissue. I’ll wipe it myself”). He experienced me as acting on him unilaterally rather than with him in a spirit of mutuality.
- People like to choose whether or not to receive help.
- Making an offer gives them an opportunity to choose.
- To make an offer powerful, ground it in what matters to them—something they actually want or care about.
- There is no promise without an acceptance. Offer + Acceptance = Promise
- The other person has four legitimate ways to respond to your offer: accept, decline, counteroffer (a different What and/or When), and promise to reply later.
So the next time you are tempted to counsel someone about their career—or wipe their nose—ask yourself: what is a powerful offer I could make right now, and do I think they will be open to it?