At one point or another, we’ve all probably felt conflicted over someone’s request for our time, energy, or resources.
On the one hand, we feel put upon because we think they may be asking too much. But on the other hand, we also feel guilty because we want to do a nice thing and help someone who needs it.
Today I’m going to share with you three questions that you can use to discern whether you should help someone out or not – and three scripts you can use if the answer is “no.”
Question #1: Is it an everyday issue or a crisis?
Once, a friend of mine had a job that she really detested. She was so unhappy that she wanted to talk to me on the phone about her frustration almost every night. This went on for several months.
I tried to be patient and offer my sympathy and support, but I really started to dread the calls. My efforts sometimes seemed to soothe her temporarily, but it never lasted long. And I started to feel resentful because she never seemed to get around to asking how I was doing. After all, my life wasn’t exactly going perfectly, either!
That friendship eventually faded away. We grew apart because of the resentment I was feeling over being used as a sounding board for frustrations that never got resolved. I’ve always felt badly about how it ended. It was a real inner struggle for me at the time.
Luckily, it seems that sometimes I’m good at learning from situations that don’t turn out well. After the fact, I realized that there was a discernment tool I could use to determine whether somebody’s request was excessive.
That tool is the question, “Is it an everyday issue or a crisis?”
We all have, to some extent, the same issues to deal with from day to day – our money, our jobs, our health, our homes, and our families. An annoying work environment would certainly fall into this category. (In fact, based on my own completely unscientific sampling, I think that the majority of people are probably less than pleased with their work environments.) This is our own responsibility to deal with and work out. It’s not our friends’ or families’ jobs to work it out for us.
On the other hand, a crisis is something like a death, severe illness, or natural disaster. We should absolutely try to help people in those situations if at all possible, especially if the crisis was brought on by something out of their control.
Now, this isn’t to say that we should never help and support people with their everyday issues, but if something is bothering them so much that they want tons of our time on a regular basis to unload about it, that is unreasonable. And furthermore, when we oblige them on a regular basis, we are not actually helping them. (More on this in the next section.)
Here’s what you can say if you find yourself in this kind of situation: “Mary, it seems like this job is really getting you down. I wish I could do something to make it better for you, but I think I’ve run out of ideas at this point. Have you thought about talking to a career counselor who might be able to help you find a job that’s a better fit?”
This plants the seed in the person’s mind that your time as “sounding board” is going to have a limit, and they need to look to more appropriate sources to get their needs met. Then, immediately start enforcing the limit you set. You’re entitled to be busy and have your own life. If you have the time or the inclination to talk when they call, then by all means pick up the phone. But if you’re busy with something else, just don’t pick up the phone. They will get the message.
We teach people how to treat us.
Question #2: Is my giving helping them to improve?
When I was in college, a friend of mine needed financial help. She was suddenly broke because of something beyond her control. She really needed some quick cash to tide her over for about a month with her rent, food, and other essentials.
She didn’t ask me for money, but she did tell me about the situation, and I gave her some money as a gift because I recognized the predicament she was in. It turned out to be enough to tide her over for about a month, until she could recover from that setback.
By contrast, I had another friend who was constantly in financial trouble and asking for money. I did give it a couple of times. But I really didn’t see any evidence that she was trying to take steps to improve her situation. So after a few times, I told her that I wouldn’t be able to give any more money. After the fact, I realized that I had found another great discernment tool.
That tool was the question, “Is my giving helping them to improve?”
If you’re confused about someone who often asks for help, this question will often clear the situation right up. If the answer is “yes,” you can feel good about doing them a favor. But if the answer is “no,” then you are enabling them, and you should stop it immediately.
In this kind of situation, you can say something as simple as, “I’m just not able to help you out with this anymore.” This will force them to at least consider the possibility of trying to address their problem in a healthier way. Behavior change is notoriously difficult for human beings, so you are helping them out by setting this boundary.
Question #3: Am I able to give cheerfully?
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was in a bind. She’d committed to making phone calls for a volunteer event, and her son suddenly got really sick, so she was unable to do it. She called me hoping that I could take her place.
This situation absolutely met the first two tests – 1) it really was a crisis, not an everyday problem, and 2) it would certainly help her rather than enabling her. Yet I still felt icky at the thought of agreeing to what she’d asked. I’d been somewhat sick myself the previous week and was still sleep-deprived. And as it happened, my kitchen cupboards were also bare – and this was the only night I’d have free to go shopping for the next five days.
So I told her I wasn’t able to do it. But I still felt guilty. After the fact, I realized that I’d observed yet another discernment tool in action.
That tool is the question, “Am I able to give cheerfully and without resentment?”
In this situation, the answer to that question would absolutely have been “no.” I could have made the calls for my friend, but I would have been secretly resenting it the entire time – and I probably would not have come across very pleasantly on the phone, either! Helping her out also would have involved skipping my shopping. Which I also would have resented, because it would have meant I’d have to grab food on the run for the next four days.
It’s possible that somebody may legitimately need help, and it will still be too much to ask of you, because you have too many other things on your plate. We can all only do so much. And it’s never good to give resentfully, because it won’t feel genuine, nor will it come across that way. So check in with your gut and ask yourself this third question when somebody really does need help. The answer will usually be clear.
In this kind of situation, if your heart just isn’t in the giving, I suggest saying something like, “I can’t help you out this time. But maybe Laura could fill in?” Try to think of some other way they could get their need met. Offer whatever you’re able to.
A Bonus: Feeling More Committed to Your “Yes”
When you give yourself permission to say “no,” and figure out both how and when to say it, there’s a side bonus: you’ll be able to commit more fully to the things that you do say “yes” to. The decision will feel more free. And because you won’t be trying to do too much, you’ll be more effective with the projects that you do allow into your life.
Are you wondering whether someone in your life is asking too much of you? Can you use any of these questions to clear things up?