Embrace Possibility When Just Trying to Help Fails

When Just Trying to Help Fails

"I'm just trying to help."Screaming

How often have you said or thought these words?

If you're a loving parent, good friend or caring colleague, probably one too many times. It's a plea you usually make when your good intentions fall short and it reflects both frustration and surprise.

So why does this happen? Why are you met with hostility, instead of thanks, when you offer helpful advice or take action to help someone else?

To be honest, the blame lies with your good-intentioned approach.

I know that sounds harsh but hear me out.

You give advice or take action to help because you are convinced that the other person will benefit. More likely than not, the other person's experience reminds you of your own and you see in hindsight what they fail to see on the horizon. In the spirit of being helpful, you want to prevent them from making the same mistakes you've made and give them the shortcut to save them the pain and trouble you went through.

You have a strong desire to share this shortcut because:

  • you understand that some mistakes leave irreparable damage and want to prevent that.
  • in retrospect, you wish someone share this with you so you could be further along than you are now.
  • the other person can easily avoid the mistake if he or she takes your advice.

These reasons create a sense of urgency that pushes you to share your insights in the most direct way possible and this turns people off. When you want to get your point across quickly and you couple that with the notion that you know better, you'll tend to TELL other people what to do (think of how parents talk to their children or how policemen talk to just about anyone).

Unfortunately, most people hate being told what to do (that's why the police have such low popularity ratings). It doesn't matter if they can rationally understand the value of your advice - they will still actively fight against it. Think of your own experiences - how do you feel when someone tells you what to do even when it's good for you? How do you usually react?

So what can you do if you still want to help?

One simple change in thinking that worked for me can be summed up in these six words:

Be the guide, not the savior.

So, how do you make this shift?


Seek to understand

Saviors believe they already have the problem all figured out and they are all too ready to share their solution. They're not interested in learning more about the other person's situation because in their minds, it's unnecessary. They've seen it all and they know exactly what needs to be done. We adopt this savior mindset more often than we realize. If you've ever advised anyone to stop a bad habit like smoking or unhealthy eating, you've probably done so from a savior's point of view. As you may know firsthand, this approach is not very effective.

Instead, adopt the mindset of being a helpful guide. To be a great guide, it's important to understand the other person. Everyone is different and what motivates you is probably not what motivates other people. Take time to ask questions to find out what is really important for the other person. Then leverage that information to make a real impact.

Imagine you're on a tour and the tour guide takes you to the same sites they take everyone else and give you the same narrative. Some of it may be interesting but you'll most likely forget most it by the time you get home. Now imagine instead you were on the same tour but this time, the tour guide takes his or her time to get to know your interests and modifies the tour to align with those interests. How much more will you remember both the tour guide and the tour guide's message? That's the difference between being mediocre and being great.

Takeaway: Before sharing what you have to say, take time to learn more about the other person's situation and motivation.


Don't advise - share

As mentioned earlier, when we feel that we know what other people need, we feel the urge to tell them what to do. We adopt this savior mentality because we think it's helpful. Why shouldn't we be direct if we have more experience and already know what to do?

This is a fair point and in some situations, the direct approach does work. At the same time, you're still reading this article because more often than not, the direct approach is ineffective.

Something I've found to be effective in reaching the other person is to stop giving advice. Instead of offering my insights right away, I offer to walk the other person through my journey that has led to the insights I want to impart. I've found that most people are open when listening to others share their experience. Their guard comes down because they're not being told what to do and they have the freedom to decide whether your lesson learned applies to them. What's great is if they do decide it's valuable, they're more invested in changing because they've come to that conclusion on their own.

Takeaway: Resist the urge to tell people what to think or do. Share with them relevant and helpful information and allow them to draw their own conclusions.


Reinforce freedom of choice

People resist when they feel forced to do something. When I used to come up against resistance, I saw it as a challenge and would push even harder, employing more rationale and busting every excuse. Although I was able to get some people to acquiesce, it didn't drive people to change. I demonstrated classic savior thinking - "I'm doing what's good for you because you're doomed if you don't take my advice."

This type of thinking is detrimental because the message you're sending to the other person is that they need you to solve their problem. This is not true - they don't need you no matter how helpful you or your advice may be. As hard as it is to believe, the world keeps turning whether or not we're involved.

One powerful and counterintuitive action that moves people to change is to frequently remind them that the choice is theirs to make. Guides don't force people. They provide pertinent information that will allow the other person to make an informed decision. They present the available options along with the benefits and consequences of each option and then allow the other person to choose which option to take. By letting go and empowering others to solve their own problems, you're more likely to get them to do so.

It helps to assume that everyone is adopting the best strategy they can with what they know. If you hold this to be true, then by expanding their knowledge, you can help them make better decisions and come up with better strategies.

Takeaway: Before, during and after sharing your insights, look to reinforce the other person's autonomy.  Remind them that the choice was, is and always will be theirs to make.


In your interactions with other people, especially if you're looking to be helpful and give advice, think about positioning yourself as a guide by:

  • asking questions to better understand the other person's situation
  • sharing relevant information and allowing the other person to draw their own conclusions
  • frequently reinforcing the other person's autonomy throughout the process

Why do you think your good intentions fall short?

What strategies have you found to be effective in getting through to people?

If you think this article might be helpful to a friend, parent or colleague, feel free to share it with them.  No pressure, the choice is yours.  

Photo by Mindaugus Dynas

Robert Chen

Robert Chen is the founder of Embrace Possibility and author of The Dreams to Reality Fieldbook. He helps people who feel stuck move forward by guiding them to see other possibilities for their lives. He specializes in working with high performers get to the next level. If you're going through a tough time right now, check out Robert's article on How to Feel Better Right Away and if you're having trouble getting what you want out of life, check out How to Always Achieve Your Goals.

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  1. Leonard @ The Wallet Doctor March 3, 2014 at 12:24 pm - Reply

    Great post! I love the idea of being the guide and not the savior. I try to spend a lot of time asking the other person questions to really try to understand their situation. Then I’ll tell them about an experience I’ve had which might be helpful for them, but I try hard not to say exactly what about the story could be helpful. I just try to share it and hope they think about it to determine what might help them. I really enjoyed the article, thanks for sharing!

    • Robert Chen March 7, 2014 at 3:11 pm - Reply

      Thanks Leonard – sounds like you’re already serving as a guide. Asking questions is a great way to go. Listening and caring go hand in hand.

  2. Shina Thomas December 27, 2014 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    Hi Robert, since childhood I was taught that its not easy to make everyone happy at the same time…. Its true. .. But in my case I share something important with some one just once if I feel the person ain’t gonna implement I stop sharings almost every info…but then even if I know its important to inform…I don’t feel like…. So what can b done…. And do I sound arrogant….

    • Robert Chen December 29, 2014 at 9:19 pm - Reply

      Hi Shina,

      Thanks for your comment. It’s not arrogant to feel the way you do. It’s understandable that you don’t want to waste time giving advice or information if other people are not valuing it. Perhaps you can look at it another way. If you see it like giving a gift – you don’t know what the person will do with it but you’re willing to give it any way.

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