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June 2013: Thinking Others Need Help: A Slippery Slope for Leaders

I want to tell you about three similar telephone conversations I had this past month:

  • A surgeon called from another state to ask if I could help his son: “Josh is a recent graduate. He’s a good kid, and very bright, but he just hasn’t been able to identify what he wants to do in life. I think he could benefit from talking to you.”

  • Four partners, heavily invested in a business and active in running it, are struggling with belief differences. It’s a case of “three against one.” Louise, one of the partners, tells me: “Frank is headstrong and a terrible listener. We (the other three partners) think he needs some professional help. Would you be willing to work with him if we can get him to the table to discuss it?”

  • Kevin, the head of a church board of elders: “We have a special-needs child and my wife constantly worries about our daughter – she calls me five times a day to tell me about the latest crisis. It’s just unbearable. Can you do anything for her?”

Common characteristics

Here’s what the above interactions have in common:

1. The messenger is upset.

2. The messenger wants someone else to get help.

3. The messenger is not discussing the messenger.

How frequently do you wish someone else would change so that you can calm down?

This pervasive pathway – influencing international diplomacy, municipal politics, marriages and business partnerships – turns out to be a dead-end street, for three reasons:

First, I am not capable of changing another. Second, my focus on changing another takes attention away from considering my own anxiety about the other. Third, my anxiety about the other distorts my capacity to accurately perceive the other. It’s almost impossible to think clearly and objectively about a person I want to change.

The “Togetherness force”

When we care about someone, or when our business or family is affected by another’s immaturity, the instinct to “get the other to change” kicks into high gear. This is an example of what Dr. Murray Bowen has called, “The togetherness force.” Why that label? Because our invasiveness, our wish for others to change, our delusions about being able to steer, control and direct others, are fed by our inability to emotionally separate from others. Among other advantages, emotional separateness helps us recognize our distorted beliefs, concerns and judgments.

Whenever a problem persists in a system, the most anxious individuals will respond by wanting others to change. This focus on others activates diagnosing and blaming.

“Diagnosing” means believing I know what’s wrong with someone else.

“Blaming” means believing the problem is the other.

An alternative to blame

One alternative to the diagnosing-and-blaming mindset is developing the ability to consider one’s own part in any problem, and to take responsibility for managing one’s part more effectively, without focusing on the other.

Here’s how that more mature mindset might show up in the conversations mentioned above:

  • A surgeon calls from another state and says: “I find myself unable to let go of my son and let him live his own life. Every time he’s lost or confused, I feel a powerful urge to jump in and get involved. It’s as if I don’t trust his ability to figure himself out and get whatever help he needs. I would like to talk to you about how I can get free of my over-focus on Josh.”

  • Louise, one of four partners in a business confides: “I don’t know what to do when two of my partners approach me to discuss their problems with Frank. I want my partners to feel free to talk to me, so I agree with them. I know this doesn’t work, because we end up Frank-bashing, which goes nowhere. I want what’s best for our firm, and I can see that my need for others to like me is part of the problem. Can you help me with this?”

  • Kevin, the head of a church’s board of elders, discusses his situation: “I am not sleeping well, eating well or focusing well because I allow my wife’s venting to take me out. I might be more anxious about my wife than she is about our daughter. I don’t think I’m being very helpful in my reactive mode. What would it look like if I were responding differently? What are my options? I would like a sounding board to help me think more clearly about myself.”

If your experience of leadership is anything like mine, you probably notice that most people who seek you out want to talk about someone else, not about themselves. Such conversations promote immaturity and offer a poor return on time investment.

Good leadership coaching helps the coachee – or the messenger – focus on self. Learning how to do this well is the responsibility of anyone who manages people.

9 Responses to “June 2013: Thinking Others Need Help: A Slippery Slope for Leaders”

  1. June 01, 2013 at 10:24 am, Catherine J. Flannery said:

John, Brilliant! And it takes a gifted leader/therapist who receives the initial call of distress to transform the caller from wishing to change other to being willing to look at self. I would love to be able to do this more often. Even as a long time therapist it is a challenge to help people make that switch in thinking. The road from immaturity to maturity in thinking can be long.

Thank you for being such a clear and articulate thinker/writer. Helps keep me on track. Catherine

  1. June 01, 2013 at 11:13 am, Tim Cronin said:

Hey John, Great reminder for me. Thanks. Do you remember a trust “equasion” we talked about years ago. Do you remember it clearly. I’m fuzzy. Love, Tim

  1. June 01, 2013 at 12:38 pm, Linda Piontek said:

I always get a lot out of your posts, and I think this is one of your best. It is super-clear and concise. You provide three examples of unproductive ways to reach out for help, and then you provide more mature alternatives for how to do that. I think this alone can be an “aha” for leaders who are focused on others as the problem and who think that getting others to change is the answer.

  1. June 02, 2013 at 6:15 pm, Catherine Rakow said:

If one is thinking systems, all parts influencing the other parts, how do you sort out the function of motivating in what you are describing? Just wondering.

  1. June 02, 2013 at 6:37 pm, Mark Venuti said:

I struggled with this on my first read. I see the second set is a more mature response due to focus on self, but I felt like it was saying that’s the only mature response, ignore the struggles of others; everyone for themselves, deal with your own problems and let others deal with theirs. Maybe that is the teaching. But I’m thinking another mature response is to talk with the person you have anxiety about, and maybe a suggestion they work with someone like John might come from that work.

  1. June 02, 2013 at 8:56 pm, Meg Joseph said:


This line of thinking has been life changing for me. Thank you!

  1. June 03, 2013 at 10:19 am, John Engels said:

Mark Venuti’s thoughtful commentary above deserves a response. When many read the ideas I tried to capture in this month’s blog, they might think, “If I focus only on my own part of the problem, that amounts to turning my back on the other, leaving them in the lurch, not helping them out, etc.” I think it is possible -indeed it happens every day – for individuals to be selfish and not care about others, to look the other way when someone has a need, to think only of themselves and not those they live and work with. This kind of selfishness is inconsistent with higher maturity and not reflective of my beliefs. The question that, in my view, is most important to focus on is: “What does it mean to be helpful, in any given situation?” I believe much behavior that is intended to be helpful turns out to be not very helpful. The first set of examples in my blog feature individuals who think they are being helpful. By taking responsibility for diagnosing another, each of these well-intended individuals makes questionable assumptions. In the process, they are also missing an opportunity to examine their own deeper motives and needs, which often drive “helpfulness.” Ironically, sometimes helpfulness is genuinely selfish. The trick is to tell when being helpful is helpful, and when it’s simply satisfying the emotional needs of the helper for approval, looking good, etc. This discernment lies at the heart of higher maturity, and it takes work!

Thanks, Mark, for helping me think about this more clearly.

  1. June 10, 2013 at 7:05 pm, Dr. Royce Fitts said:

This brief article/post is one of the best and most simple I have seen re “systems thinking”. I have fwd it to several of my clients and peers. The struggle to respond w/ more maturity, less reactivity, is exceedingly dificult. I appreciated John’s additional reply re “helpfullness”. I think systems thinking is misunderstood at times b/c it seeks to push for clarity of what is possible. It “looks” selfish through the lens of pain and anxiety. Thank you John.

  1. July 01, 2013 at 1:07 am, Andrea Schara said:

John all good blogs lead to questions. Here are a few thoughts…

Catherin Rakow wondering about the impact of interactions or the function of motivating others in a system.

When you see one person you might not se the system. You might not see how all the pieces of the system are interacting. its hard to observe how various people are gaining or losing in the process of communicating.

In systems were people are totally dependent on one another any suggestions or help is useless. The person with the greatest problem may be absorbing anxiety for the system. The system doesn’t want the anxiety spread around, it resists change. More dependent people do NOT do well with suggestions as they lose responsibility for self and find ways to fail and keep the negative energy going. There are exceptions where people can accept suggestions and take responsibility for self. But vulnerable people cannot be a clone or a robot of another.

Each individual has to assume some responsibility to communicate and to mange self. How can anyone help another with that task? Perhaps by asking good question and having a real conversation and being aware that the system may sabotage any and all efforts.

As harsh as it sounds that many be why helping is so hard. The symptoms helps others and the status quo is powerful.

Mark Venuites point as to how to have a conversation with someone who is anxious about the struggle to find self and who may be looking for the quick fix is right on.

Its requires the hard work of relating as best as one can and tolerating the failures and keep going looking for more self in the other rather than the other doing something right.

You are working to relate well to the most mature side of the other. And they can reject you for your troubles. So not to give up and to keep relating to them is a real hard job.

The problem is not about giving people suggestions or ideas its about relating from the immature side of self to the immature side of others.

Change in a system is not going to feel good as you have to work on self. These are the suffering leaders, who are willing to redirect the anxiety in the system they will become more of the problem.

The problem is the flow of energy as we communicate with one another impinging in the name of help or having nothing to to with the jerks, and these functional slots in systems are with us over the generations.

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