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The 3 Best Books to Increase Your Helpfulness

It’s a tricky task to help people.  On the one hand, your heart says, “Let me help you.  Let me serve.”  On the other hand, the very act of trying to do that often creates resistance to the very thing you’re trying to achieve. In this podcast I share my three favourite books about helpfulness, and some of the insights I’ve gleaned from them, including:

  • A key way to switch from thrusting help onto someone to being truly helpful.
  • How to give in a way that supports others but also nourishes you rather than depletes you.
  • Why fear, anxiety and compassion play a critical in helping to serve others.

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Full Transcript

So we all have a good heart. We’re all in this gig not just to be selfish and overly ambitious and claw everybody else down so you can get to the top. I mean, I know some people are like that, but obviously not you, not me, not some of the other people watching and listening to this podcast. So part of that means that we’re actually keen to help other people.

But actually being useful, being helpful, is far trickier than you’d think. I mean, just think about it. Think of all the times you’ve tried to offer help, offer support, and it hasn’t been well-received, it hasn’t been understood, it’s been rejected outright. And in fact, reverse the tables and think of all the times that other people have tried to help you and sometimes how frustrating that is, how annoying it is, how inappropriate it is sometimes, and how just unhelpful, quite frankly, it is a lot of the time. That dynamic, it flows both ways, the help you try and give, the help you get thrust upon you. So it would be really useful, wouldn’t it, if you could actually figure out how to be helpful in an actual helpful way rather than a slightly annoying way.

I think about this a lot. This is, in essence, at the heart of what we teach around some of these coaching programs that we’re known for at Box of Crayons. So I’ve done some reading about how to be helpful and I think there are three books that I can share with you right now that could be useful for you as well as might be something interesting for you to read.

So let me start with this first book. This is a book by a guy called Edgar Schein. Gosh, I studied with Edgar Schein probably 15 years ago. He’s really well-known for his insights around how corporate cultures work and understanding about that, and therefore how change within corporate cultures works. But in his more recent years, he’s had this real focus on helping, and hence his book called Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help.

Now, I think there’s something very profound in what Schein talks about here, which is this key insight, which is the act of offering somebody else help raises your status and it lowers their status. Here’s what we know from neuroscience. As soon as you raise your rank and lower their rank, you actually create disengagement. You create resistance. So ironically, the very act of offering help creates resistance to the very help that you’re trying to offer. Ah, so frustrating!

So one of the things that Schein talks about is just to be aware of that and how unhelpful thrusting help upon people is, particularly if they’re not open to it. And his basic solution, and this is actually the title of another book of his that followed this one, is actually called humble inquiry, which is rather than rushing into the, “Let me fix this, let me solve this, let me help you,” it’s to stay curious, stay humble, be inquisitive about what’s going on, and it’s actually through humble inquiry that you potentially open up the opportunity to offer your help, or at least in effect facilitate other people to figure stuff out themselves. It’s humble inquiry, gosh, that’s just another word in some ways for coaching, for using the real skills of staying curious rather than becoming the expert and giving the advice. So Edgar Schein, fantastic book, Helping. Profound writing, I think, so something useful for you there perhaps.

The second book I want to tell you about is called Give and Take by a guy called Adam Grant, an academic. It’s called, the subtitle, A Revolutionary Approach to Success. I think that’s a bit of a generic subtitle, but I love the premise of this book, and here’s how I’d sum it up. Grant says, “Look, there are three different types of people in this world. There are the givers, there are the takers, and then there’s a third type.” I can’t remember the label he gives them, but it’s basically those people who, you know, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine,” so it’s kind of a trading people, around that. Givers, takers, and then that kind of fair exchange.

And he did some research to say, “Okay, so in this cutthroat corporate world that we work in, who really gets to the top of their profession and who lingers at the bottom?” And you’ve probably got an idea in your brain immediately, who gets to the top, who gets to the bottom, so can you imagine—and he did this research across a number of different sectors—can you imagine who actually lies at the bottom, the least successful in these different professions? Well, it’s actually the givers. It’s actually the givers. They’re the people who just kind of sacrifice themselves for the sake of others and they never got to rise off the bottom themselves. They kind of become sacrificial victims.

So then, who do you think is at the top of the profession? Who do you think are most successful in their professions? Well, here’s the twist, of course, because again, it’s the givers. But this is a different type of giver. This is a person that still has generosity at their heart, a real willingness to be helpful, but also not helpful to the detriment of themselves. They figure out a way to serve, to give, to support in a way that marshals and builds their own resources rather than depletes their own resources.

I’ve bumped into lots of people in the work that I’ve done who have become victims of their own circumstances. Using a different model which I talk about elsewhere, the Drama Triangle, they’re kind of the rescuers. And what they end up is they end up depleted, they end up overwhelmed, they end up frustrated, and it’s actually a bit of a miserable life. But there’s a way of actually figuring out how do you give in a way that supports those you give but also nourishes you rather than depletes you? So that’s what I took from the Adam Grant book. This is a really good read. Well worth picking up.

And the third book I’d point you to here is from Pema Chodron. Now, some of you may know her. In the world of Buddhist teaching, she’s a bit of a kind of media superstar. She’s actually based in Canada, out on Cape Breton in Gampo Abbey there, and she has written a series of very accessible books that are often people’s first taste of Buddhist teachings; kind of my first taste of them as well. And I think what I took from this book, I mean, there’s a lot of wisdom in this book about being with fear, willing to be vulnerable as part of that fear and anxiety as you let the world fall apart you, because sometimes you have to let things fall apart to make progress.

But I think the thing I took most out of this is a sense of the importance of compassion in this whole experience. And it’s a really worthwhile question to ask yourself that as you seek to help people, are you doing this from a place of compassion for them and true servant leadership, or are you doing it in a way that is actually about raising your own status? You can see we’re circling back to the Schein insight here.

So for me, Pema Chodron is all about that process for compassion, true compassion, for what that person is going through, so(?) deep empathy. And therefore, understanding how to offer help in a way that feels genuine and humble rather than, “Let me prove how good I am. Let me prove how noble I am. Let me prove how smart I am. Let me prove how better I am than you are because I can help you even if you can’t help yourself.”

It’s a tricky world. It’s a tricky task to help people. On the one hand, your heart says, “Let me help you. Let me serve.” On the other hand, the very act of trying to do that often creates resistance to the very thing you’re trying to achieve there. So you have to be kind of cunning. You have to understand some of the subtleties, both I guess spiritual and neurological responses to help so that you can help in a way that’s truly helpful.

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