Help me, don’t help me: how to help people without them knowing

Helping, without your help being too obtrusive, is an art.  Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

We all like to help others, but sometimes others don’t want to be helped.  There are several reasons for this.  Perhaps they have fragile dignity, or perhaps they have a self-image that thrives on the appearance of independence.  Whatever the cause, it’s very common to find yourself wanting to give others help and support, but experiencing resistance.

Furthermore, at times others will send us a mixed message, that goes something like: ‘Help me, don’t help me.’  Again, perhaps they have good reason to wish for help; but also good reason to want to appear in control.  It is part of human existence to need social support, but to want to give out signals that one can cope perfectly well, thank you.

Examples of this can include:

  • the employee who is having trouble keeping up, but wants to appear competent
  • the friend or partner who is suffering extreme anxiety, but does not want to appear clingy or desperate
  • the vulnerable or disabled person who has not accepted their vulnerability, or who wants to do as much as possible themselves
Here are a few tactics you might like to try:


If your direct advice is unlikely to be accepted, then you could find a third party piece of art or literature that says what you want to say.  For instance, if someone is suffering from an illness, you can find leaflets, or TV programmes, that discuss that illness.  The other person can then review your offering in their own time, and it is not really advice from you, just something shared.


If your direct help is not going to be welcome, then you can put into place systems and controls that do the same thing, but aren’t so directly linked to you.  In the workplace, these can be labelled as training, or new systems.  In domestic life, these can be called routines.  In this way, employees can be helped without direct instruction from their boss, and friends and family can be helped without always having to ask, or show despair, before they get help.


Everyone has times when they are more amenable to being helped, and times when they would bark at anyone who tried to help.  To you, it may seem that the world needs all your wisdom right now, but that may not be the case!  Waiting for the right time to speak is an art, but once learned, can be liberating.  Suddenly, your friend or colleague might ask you, honestly and quietly, for help… and that may be your easier moment.  There isn’t a saying that goes: ‘When the mouth is open, that is the best time to feed.’  But there should be.


I could write a whole book on the language of help.  In general, though, choose phrases which deliver the message in a way that respects the other person’s dignity, freedom, independence, competence, and value.

  • Instead of ‘what you need to realise is…’, maybe say ‘I see what you mean, but I wonder if…’
  • Instead of ‘you’ve got it wrong’, maybe say ‘can you take me through how you got to that conclusion?’
  • Instead of ‘don’t do that’ in the moment, maybe wait until later, and then say ‘when you did that, I wanted to suggest a different way…’
It is very context dependent, and you will have your own examples.  But, in general, orders and control are suggestive of a more dictatorial relationship, and are more likely to be met with resistance.  Curiosity and interest are suggestive of friendship, and are more likely to be accepted.



Do I love to help others?  If so, how do I convey that help?

Sometimes, instead of bossing people, can I find a piece of art or literature that offers the same thoughts, but gently and beautifully?

Sometimes, instead of jumping in and doing it all myself, can I develop training, systems or routines that support everyone as a natural part of their day?

Can I learn to be wise and patient?  Can I sometimes wait for a better time to speak?  And, sometimes, can I think carefully, and choose more peaceful words that respect the other’s dignity, freedom, independence, competence, and value?