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Help People Even When You Know They Can’t Help You Back

by David Brock on November 2nd, 2018

I”m on another 11 hour plane flight, encamped in my “pod,” I have my noise cancelling headphones on to help isolate me from the activities around me.  At these moments, with relatively few distractions, I take some time to reflect and be a little more philosophical.

I started thinking about the “expectation of reciprocity.”  Stated differently, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”

How did I get to pondering this issue?

Part of it is the never-ending, mindless chatter/offers I get on platforms like LinkedIn.  People reach out, “I saw your profile, you have an interesting background, we have lots of connections in common, I’d like to connect…..”  That note is followed by, “How can I help, what can I do for you………by the way, we sell…….I’d like to talk to you…..”

Not long ago, I decided to respond to test a few of those offers for help.  I replied, “Thanks for connecting and your offer to be helpful.  I’d really like to understand the challenges your organization faces in driving sales performance…….”

The responses were basically, “Oh…….Well………  But I’d like to talk to you about what we sell…….”  To which I would respond, “But you wanted to be helpful and this is what would be most helpful right now….”

I, also, get people asking me to promote an article, a program, an offering or a book.  Inevitably, these offers always have the threat of reciprocity.  “Do this for me and I’ll be helpful to you……”  I don’t tend to respond well to this.  I’m delighted to promote things that are great quality, insightful, and would be helpful to people who trust me by following me.  I don’t do it with the expectation of reciprocity, but rather to provide great ideas to others.

But that’s not what really got me to this reflection.

Typically, every week, I also have conversations with people looking for some type of advice.  Sometimes they are aspiring entrepreneurs, trying to figure out how to make that leap into running their own businesses.  Sometimes, they are sales people/managers who have followed me and need advice on a difficult situation.

I try to be helpful in these conversations.   Actually, I really enjoy them, they keep me grounded in real issues and constantly learning.  Inevitably, at the end, these people ask, “How can I help you?”  These offers are different than those offers for help cited above.  I know they are genuine and well intended.

As many times as I’m asked that question, I just don’t know how to respond to that question.

Ironically, you would think that by now, I’d have a pat response to that question.  But I don’t, and I never have been able to figure out a response.

Every once in a while, I have someone asking me, “Why do you invest so much time in these discussions without expecting to get something out of it?”  Frankly, the people asking me these questions, don’t get it.  The don’t understand how much I’m really getting from these discussions.

As I reflect, I don’t know if it’s a character flaw, a lack of skill.  To be honest, it never occurs to enter these conversations with the expectation of reciprocity.

Part of it, as I mentioned, is I get so much out of the discussions themselves.  I learn about people, their dreams, some of the problems/challenges they face, and we explore ideas about what they might do.  Frankly, it’s flattering and a privilege to have these people trust me enough to ask for help.  Crassly, doing this makes me feel really good!

As I reflect further, the people that have been most helpful to me, have been those who have invested time in listening to me, getting me to think, helping me learn—all without an expectation of reciprocity.

I don’t know why they did it,  why they invested time in me.  Perhaps they saw something in me.  Perhaps someone had done the same for them.  None have had agendas that I could discern other than genuinely wanting to help me.

Too often, I think we make building relationships and our networks too complicated.  We attach a “price” to getting help and being helpful.  I wonder if this is really what being helpful is about.

Some might think, “Dave, you are being naive and idealistic…..”

I don’t think so.  Sure, there are a handful of the conversations that have been disappointing.  Perhaps I failed, perhaps for some reason the person couldn’t move forward.  One or two times, the person has had an “agenda.”  But I filter those with vicious efficiency.

Crassly, even if these conversations haven’t been helpful to others (though I suspect most of the time they are), they have been helpful to me.  So there is actually a bit of selfishness in having these conversations with no expectation of reciprocity.

I wonder what would happen if more of our conversations had no agenda other than just trying to be genuinely helpful–in the moment?

What if we focused on creating real value in that interaction with no expectation to get something other than the joy of having an impact, for a moment, on someone’s life?

It seems we would have a better world, and perhaps a more rewarding life.

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4 Comments
  1. Dave,

    I very much appreciate how you’ve “paid it forward” with me and what we’re working on. I can only imagine how many you’ve helped in similar fashion.

    Jim

  2. Dave Olson permalink

    Thought provoking Post Dave – thank you!

    I have benefited from conversations with you through this blog, emails and once by phone. Usually I just need a nudge, or a perfectly timed blog post moves me forward. But one time you called on a Friday afternoon in response to an email and asked me a very pointed question which, thankfully, led me to a few months of unemployment. But now I’m 13 months into an awesome position with a great company.

    I’ve done essentially the same thing for many others over the years. Asked a tough or challenging question, just because I somehow knew it needed to be asked. As much as I appreciate what you’ve done to help me, the “reward” in my life is that I’ve had some small positive impact on others along the way.

    This is how we make a better world.

    Dave

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