Perhaps you know a person who can articulate brilliant observations in every meeting. He really is quick and bright. It’s just that he often preempts the kind of participation that generates deeper insight and effective solutions. He makes quite an impression, but thoughtful questions and quiet reflection find little space when he is in the room.
Helping almost always starts with listening — really listening. It is difficult to help effectively if we don’t understand what is most important and what is really needed. There are many stories of aid workers coming into a developing area and imposing a well-intended solution that either fails to address the actual needs of the people or it falls apart as soon as the workers leave because it is does not fit with the existing culture.
And each of us has those moments where we want to be seen as someone who has the answer or who can be counted on to fix what is broken. The challenge is that focusing on how we are seen pulls us out of the realm of being helpful and into the realm of impression management. When we are trying to impress, we generally resent and suppress alternate perspectives as well as feedback that is not positive. When we are focused on helping, we naturally seek and accept competing viewpoints and challenging feedback as useful information.
A common side effect of listening and understanding so that we can truly be helpful is that we may make an impression on others. But, the reverse is rarely true — trying to make an impression on others does not usually have the side effect of being helpful.
Waking up each morning with the intention to help others to the best of your ability, and revisiting that intention several times over the course of the day, can have a significant impact on our health, happiness, relationships, and performance. It is easy to get distracted by the desire to be seen as right or impressive, but efforts in that vein rarely make the world a better place. When we notice that we are trying to impress, we can take a breath, smile, drop our shoulders, reconnect with our desire to help, and listen carefully. This simple practice can change everything.