The Unintended Consequences of Helping Others

helping others leadership listeningMost of us have at least a few kind bones in our bodies and are naturally inclined to help people who appear to be in some sort of trouble, at least to the extent we are able to help. We help our kids when they have trouble with their homework (or at least we try), we help our colleagues out when they need support with workload, and we make ourselves available to our friends when they ask us to help them move. With rare exception, most of us are good, kind souls.

But there are also times when others signal that they have a problem, and although our intentions are very good, our perceived helpful nature actually backfires, pushing people away. This kind of help can be found in many forms, such as offering unsolicited advice, killing people with logic, moralizing someone into making the “right” decision, buttering up, consoling, reassuring, making a joke, etc. In Dr. Gordon’s leadership training, these are referred to as communication roadblocks: intentional things we say or do to help someone, even when help was never wanted or requested. Communication roadblocks (often referred to as the “Dirty Dozen”) are most often used, and are the most destructive, when we are trying to achieve our own, personal desired outcome of a situation, giving lesser consideration to what is in the best interest of the person we are communicating with. The unintended consequences of this brand of helping include avoidance, resistance, and strained relationships.

If you’ve ever done any of the following when someone lets you know they’re having a problem, you’re guilty of road-blocking:

1. Ordering
2. Warning
3. Preaching
4. Advising
5. Persuading
6. Criticizing
7. Praising
8. Ridiculing
9. Analyzing
10. Reassuring
11. Questioning
12. Diverting

When someone approaches us with a problem that they’re having, sometimes, with our infinite intelligence, we may think the solution is so obvious that we give the person who “owns” the problem our advice. If we are impatient, we may even order someone to just do as we say so that everyone can get back to work and move on with life. If we aren’t impatient, we may facilitate the conversation toward a desired end through first analyzing, and then persuading with logic. If we happen to agree with someone and want to support their opinions and feelings, we may feel the need to reassure them and reaffirm our objective with a little preaching.

The truth is, no matter how much we think we are helping, roadblocking doesn’t help anyone. In fact, roadblocking communication does much more harm than good. If you’ve ever wondered why so many teenagers talk or text endlessly with friends instead of confiding in their parents, it’s because many parents are masters at roadblocking.

Another truth is that people want to solve their own problems, and when they confide in others, it’s because they crave someone who will just listen without judgment, and not try to fix anything.

If you’re still not convinced, re-read the above list, and think about how you react when someone roadblocks communication with you.


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