On the distinction between ‘helping’ and ‘being helpful’. And why it matters

Taking a fresh look at helping

Is it possible that in helping you I am, underneath it all and hidden from view, fanning the flames of my ego?  Put differently, is my helping there to bolster my sense of self-worth, to display that I am better/stronger/knowledgeable… than you?  Is it possible that in the game of helping you are there for me as opposed to me being there for you?

Is it possible that when I reach out to help it is to sooth/extinguish my own pain – the pain that I experience when I am present to you experiencing pain? Neuroscientists claim that ‘mirror neurons’ dwell within us / are an essential part of us.  And when I see/hear your pain the same pain shows up in my world, I experience it. It is by experiencing this pain that I act.  Put differently, where the mirror neuron circuitry is impaired people do not show empathy, they do not act.

Is it possible that when I help you I am not being helpful to you?  Put differently, is it possible that when I read for you I get in the way of you learning to read and reading for yourself?  Is it possible that when I cook for you I get in the way of you learning to cook and cooking for yourself?  Is it possible that when you fall and I lift you up I am getting in the way of you getting up yourself by yourself and getting present to being capable of lifting yourself of the floor?  Is it possible that when I supply you with food handouts I am getting in the way of you learning and taking responsibility for growing/coming up with your own food?

‘Helping’ and ‘being helpful’ – two different beasts?

It occurs to me ‘helping’ and ‘being helpful’ are two very different beasts yet in the way we carry ourselves we collapse them into the one and the same.  It occurs to me that when we are ‘helping’ it is most likely that we are not ‘being helpful’.  And that by confusing ‘helping’ with ‘being helpful’ we are doing harm to our fellow human beings.  How?

By sharing, by telling, by advising we are ‘pushing’ our views on to our fellow human beings and thus robbing them of their responsibility and their freedom. What responsibility?  The responsibility to search for/come up with their own views.  By doing stuff for others we are robbing them of their responsibility for doing the work.  By making the choices for others we are not only robbing them of their freedom (to make their own choices and live with these choices) we are robbing them of their responsibility for making choices.  I hope you get the idea.

What is the critical difference between ‘helping’ and ‘being helpful’? 

When I am ‘helping’ you then I am the lead actor, I cast myself in the most powerful role, it is about what I am doing to you/for you, I am the active force acting and you are the passive one simply receiving that which I am handing out.

Helping requires little thought, reflection, intentionality – it is easier, it is quicker, it does not require you and I to work in partnership, to cultivate strong bonds. I am the parent, you are the child, I lead you follow, I dictate you obey…… I say ‘being helpful’  is totally different ‘game’ – one that is rare simply because most of us collapse ‘being helpful’ with ‘helping’.  Put differently, our automatic way of being is such that it occurs to as that ‘helping’ is by definition ‘helpful’.   And because ‘being helpful’ really takes something (hard work, sacrifice) as opposed to ‘helping’ which is rather easy in comparison.  

What constitutes ‘being helpful’?

‘Being helpful’ requires that I let go of my ego, that I do not rush to act.  ‘Being helpful’ requires that I stand in the place that I see/act towards you as a person who is whole-complete-perfect, a human being who has all that life demands of him/her.  ‘Being helpful’ requires that I never encroach on your responsibility for your life.  ‘Being helpful’ demands that instead of taking away your freedom, I confront you with your freedom: to invent possibilities for your life, to take a stand in life, to make your choices, to walk the path you have chosen for yourself.   That I act to increase your capacity to be responsible and to exercise your freedom.  And importantly, that I act to increase your capacity to act powerfully on yourself and your circumstances.  Once this context is in place and I act from this context then any help that I provide will show up as contributing to the game of ‘being helpful’.

Imagine that you are confronted with a poor person.  Giving that person money is ‘helping’.  Buying that poor person food, clothes… is helping.  Now asking yourself what would constitute ‘being helpful’ to this poor person?  I say you are ‘being helpful’ when you ask and enter deeply into the following questions:

“What would enable this person to help himself, to lift himself out of poverty?”  Another way of thinking about this is to ask yourself the question “What is getting in the way of this person not being poor, being OK, being prosperous?”  A great place to start is with the person himself and the story that he has created (about himself, his circumstances) and lives from/into.  Then take a look at the circumstances of his life and the environment in which he is embedded.

“How do I ensure that at all times this person gets that s/he is whole-complete-perfect and gets s/he is in the driving seat?”  That s/he gets that s/he does not need fixing –  s/he is all that it takes to deal with/transcend her circumstances.  Notice: I deliberately wrote is and not has.  That s/he is confronted with the responsibility with lifting himself out of his poverty.  That it is s/he who chooses if s/he wishes to lift herself out of poverty – to make fresh choices, to walk a different path, to do the work that goes with walking this new path

“How do I ensure that I keep my ego out of the picture?  And if it is in the picture what can I do to ensure that it contributes to the game of ‘being helpful’ rather than undermining it?”  Just being present to this question, being mindful of it on a daily basis, keeping it existence is often enough to ensure that I show up as ‘being helpful’ as opposed to indulging in ‘helping’.

“What is missing the presence of which would make a significant difference?” Here I am talking about resources.  For many it is simply belief in themselves as whole-complete-perfect.  You and I can supply that much needed resource by relating to these people as whole-complete-perfect and not acting in any way to undermine this.  For example, in a Montessori School if a student goes and asks a question then the teacher, if she is embodying Montessori principles, will ask the student what he things the answer to the question is.  If the student says he doesn’t know then the teacher is likely to ask the student where/how we can find out for himself and encourage him to do so.  It may be that the resource that is missing is money to buy equipment to start a small business.  This is what Kiva does – enable people to lift themselves out of poverty by tapping into microloans.  It may be that the resource that is missing is simply education: “please teach me to catch fish so that I am able to catch fish by myself for the rest of my life. And teach others to catch fish!”  I hope you get the idea.


‘Being helpful’ requires a certain kind of play and generates certain kinds of results.  ‘Helping’ requires a different kind of play and generated different kinds of results.   I am not making the assertion that one is better than another.  Nor am I making the claim that one is good and the other bad.  I am definitely not telling you what do do not even under the guise of ‘helping you live better lives’.  You are responsible for your life, you are free to choose how you live your life. I am simply making it clear that ‘helping’ and  ‘being helpful’ are distinct and should not be collapsed.  That we should not kid ourselves that when we are ‘helping’ that we are by definition ‘being helpful’.  And that when we ‘help’ others we can actually be undermining them and thus not ‘being helpful’ to them.

Finally and importantly, I am not saying that you and I should not ‘help’.  If a young child falls into a fire I will take that child out immediately.  I will not wait to figure out how I can ‘be helpful’ to this young child.   If I come across a starving person I will ‘help’ that person by feeding him. And then I might just choose to play the game of ‘being helpful’.

And Finally

It really takes something to listen to my speaking.  I deliberately make it so – my commitment is to ‘be helpful’ and not simply ‘help”.  If you are listening to my speaking then I thank you. And in particular I thank the 30+ of you who subscribe to this blog.  Without you there would be no value in my speaking.  So once again I thank you for you listening.



Are you open to miracles? Yes, they do happen – here is mine

Teachers and educational psychologists say my eldest son is dyslexic.  What does that mean?  It means that from an early age he struggled to read, to comprehend, to spell and write.  We knew there was something special and unusual about him when he was about 2 – 3 years old.  Whilst he has curious and great with stuff like using remote controls to work the television and VCR we noticed that he struggled to use words to voice what there was there for him to voice.  Somehow it never came out right.

At the age of 7-8 it was official: your child is dyslexic.  That did not worry me as I had chosen to put him in a Montessori School from the age of 5.  And if there was a schooling method and system that would help him then the Montessori method and associated school would help – I was totally confident.  We (my wife and I) searched out all manner of ‘quacks’ that offered hope of helping our son and spent quite some money.  Why?  We were open and committed to the Possibility that our son would read, comprehend, spell, write and would not be limited by the way that his brain is wired.  On top of the private Montessori school we found private teachers who specialised in helping dyslexic children. Why did we make this effort?  We love our son.  And because he is smart when it comes to the three dimensional world – the real world: he struggled only in flatland (two dimensional world of reading and writing).

When our son moved from primary school to secondary school he went from the private education system to a state school.  This is when our ‘battle’ with the education system began: in theory (and under the law) our son should have got specialist teachers, in reality he did not. At the age of 12 his reading age was around 8, his comprehension age was around 6.5 years – this meant that he was unfit for and could not cope with being in a secondary school.  Even in subjects like mathematics or business that he is good in he struggled in exams because he could not read, understand and then write answers to questions!

After fours years of fighting and a mountain of paperwork we finally won our case in Court and our son got the specialist teaching support that the law said he should be provided with.  In the meantime I spent considerable time, energy and money in finding all kinds of material to help me: computer, software, books….. And I spent quite some time ‘teaching him’

By the time my son had left school he had done much better than we had expected in many subjects including getting several A grades.  That was a relief.  On the other hand his reading and comprehension age was around 11 years.  And most importantly he hated reading and rarely read.  Once I had stood for the Possibility that my son would be competent in reading, comprehending, spelling and writing.  By the time he left school I was utterly defeated – I accepted that my son would never read, comprehend or write at a level to reflect his age.  The Possibility that had been so strong and for which I fought fiercely had died and instead resignation reigned supreme.

This week I found a book in my son’s room.  Not only that he told me he had read 15 pages the first night.  The other night he told me that he had read 50 pages and was going to bed early so that he could read more.  My reaction: what a marvellous miracle!  Who would have thought my son would voluntarily read and enjoy reading?  What made the difference?  My son loves business and he is great at it.  He loves watching Alan Sugar and the apprentice.  He works in a charity shop and the people around him recognise his passion, his skill and the contribution he makes.  One of the good folks gave him Alan Sugar’s autobiography!

Lesson 1:  when you and I are intrinsically motivated, because your heart is called into play, we can do the most amazing stuff

Lesson 2:  be open to Possibility, be open to miracles, never ever give up on your dreams!