I have a team of very nice, eager, helpful salespeople. They are really good people who try to help every customer that walks in.
The problem is many of us do not know being helpful is not the same as actually helping. You see, in our efforts to want to seem nice, we try to please others by doing exactly what they ask (which is not always doing exactly what they need).
So, if a customer says, “I want the cheapest widget you have”, a helpful salesperson will say, “Sure, here it is. Will that be cash or charge?” A salesperson who is actually trying to help will pause and ask questions, “What will you be using that widget for the most? What happened to your last widget? Have you used a higher quality widget before? If you could design your own widget, what would it look like?”
We do not have to use a sales context, though. If your friend who has been drinking says, “I’m good to drive; give me my keys”, then giving him the keys would be very helpful to him. Actually helping him, however, might look different. “Sorry, pal. I think you’ve had a few too many. Why don’t I call a cab? It’s on me.”
Consider two different doctors. Doctor A says, “The tests came back. I’m afraid it’s cancer. You need to start chemo right away.” Is he helpful or helping? Doctor B says, “The tests came back. I’m afraid it’s cancer. Let’s talk through your options. We can do chemotherapy, which is highly effective but it’s risky and physically damaging. There is holistic therapy, as well. The science is out and there is no proof of efficacy but some people have anecdotal evidence that it works and it is much less physically damaging. We can also operate and try to remove the cancerous cells but that is an invasive process and if we miss any, the cancer might return. You choose what you think is best for you and I will help you navigate whichever path you want to take.” Now, was he helpful or helping? Which doctor would you trust?
Helpful versus Helping even applies to mundane things. Today, Nicole wanted to visit a restaurant where we most certainly would have some sugary bread sticks (she gave up sugar this week). In this case, I had to ask her if she wanted me to be helpful (take her to that restaurant) or if she wanted me to help (offer to eat elsewhere or at home and support her commitment). We ended up eating at a different restaurant and avoiding the sugar. It was a good decision that helped us both!
Everybody wants to be helpful; it is our nature to protect and support our tribe and we like to be perceived as being nice, and good, and generally approved of. Sometimes, though, we should ask ourselves if we are just being helpful or if we are actually helping. Once we know the difference, we can really do good things for each other instead of just being nice to each other.