This article is the result of an experience I had a couple of days ago, before going to bed. This made me realise that my eagerness to help people, sometimes does me and the people I’m trying to help a great disservice.

Trying to help people when they don’t think they have a problem or need help, is just like trying to take a fly out of your bedroom by grabbing it and throwing it out the window — It just doesn’t work.

It was 12:45 AM, and I was getting ready to go to bed. I finished reading(listening) Daniel Khaneman’s “Thinking fast and slow” and just when I reach over to turn my bedside light off, I see a fly. Now, I’m not the biggest insect fan but given that they’re living beings, I thought to myself: “I’m not going to kill it, I’ll catch it and release it outside”. Instinctively, I did what was natural for a human trying to catch something. I followed it carefully and then caught it in my palm.
Up to this point, everything went as planned. I caught the fly, now I’ll have to release it. Realising that it has been caught by a “predator” the fly tries to escape, and at that point, I thought that it would be better to squeeze my fist a bit. I wasn’t going to let it slip through my fingers. Unfortunately, that was a big mistake, as I managed to hurt the fly in the process. I put the fly on the edge of my window but it didn’t looked like it was in a condition to fly. After closing the window, I realised that this is exactly what happens in most cases when I spot a problem and try to help. Based on previous discussions with friends, some of them were complaining about having the same problem.

The problem is illustrated by any one of the quotes below:

— I’m trying to help her and she acts like I have something against her!
— Why do people think that I’m judgemental whenever I point to them that they’re doing something wrong? I just want to help them realise their mistake.
— He’s upset with me because I asked him to change X. It’s for his own good!
— I tried to help them just like I did with those other people and they replied that it’s offensive to them to do X. They also said that I should be ashamed for trying to convince them to do that.

Take a look at all the scenarios above and imagine yourself in the position of the person being offered help. Your thoughts would probably be similar to the phrases below:

— How can you say that this is wrong? And who the hell asked for your opinion? I did not ask for your help!
— Thanks for letting me know what your self-appointed committee of one thinks about me. I know what my problems are and X is not one of them.
— You just want me to change for your satisfaction and wellbeing, not because it will do me any good. I’m fine being like this and doing X. X defines who I am, it’s part of my personality.
— What type of people do you think we are? How is this s##t supposed to help us, are you trying to <insert situation they think you will put them in>??

If you have been in any of the situations above, I bet it did not feel good. I know I’ve been in all of them and many more that would require a series of articles to list them all.
These are situations where people who YOU think have a problem, don’t see that problem. At least that’s what you think, that they don’t see it.
The thing you’re not taking into account is that they might know about it but don’t have the time to deal with it at the moment. Maybe it is not on their priority list, they might have other, more important things to tend to, before this. They may have received the feedback (and the offer for help) dozens of times by now, and you are person #101 reminding them about it. They may have otherwise listened to you, but they’re in a bad mood, it’s not the right time, other things are on their mind.

And I can go on for ages, listing situations when people have good reasons to reject your help and take you for a judgemental bastard. My 12-year smoker experience qualifies me to do this. They left me with a lot of rationalizations and reasons why, for example, smoking is not a problem, how it is your only vice, how other people are drinking or taking drugs etc.

Bottom line is that whenever you see someone in trouble, and would like to help, take the time to find out if they think they need help, and how open they are to receive what they might see as negative feedback.
Note that what you might consider to be constructive feedback, some would see as negative feedback.

Also, don’t think that if a method worked well, on simliar occasions, with a different person, it is a silver bullet that you can use for everyone who has that problem.

For example, explaining to a junior programmer a concept like JavaScript closures, drastically differs from one programmer to the next. Even though they share a common feature, the experience/career level, they might understand it differently depending on their background. One of them might have studied programming since high-school while the other is a self-taught, no-degree developer.

Based on your field of expertise you might need a different approach when working with different sexes, ages or cultures.

For example, if you are teaching a course to an audience of people in their 30s try no to use a school teacher’s attitude and language. Don’t ask them to turn off their phones, or make them put their phones in a box because they were texting during your course.
Those come off as bad manners, as you might be talking to busy businesspeople who might not afford the luxury of “unplugging” themselves outside their vacation days. An attitude like the one above, is a sure recipe to earn antipathy and lose trust. As I have come to learn on my own skin, the feeling is that the person is being a smartass.

It took me 28 years of existence and a fly in my bedroom, in the middle of the night, to realise that my do-good attitude doesn’t always do good :). Through this article, I would like to thank the people who had the patience to learn things from me and I would like to apologise to the people to whom I lacked patience; I hope our neurons will regenereate 😇.

Bottom line, don’t think that the method for catching a calf that escaped from the stables will also work for catching flies.

Photo credits: Quinn DombrowskiHelp