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How to Be Genuinely Helpful: 5 Tips

Too many chiefs and not enough indians! my mom would cry.

She’d ask for a small, simple piece of help (Would you please grab one end of this coffee table?)…

…and instead we’d pepper her with unsolicited questions and opinions and advice:

Why are you moving it? It looks fine here! Are you sure you’re supposed to be lugging furniture around? What about your back? It’s about time you got rid of that coffee table, and the sofa’s pretty shabby, too. You really ought to break down and spend some money on new furniture. What will the neighbors think? Have you ever used Murphy’s soap; it might take out that stain….

Here are five of my favorite tips to turn good intentions into actual assistance:

  1. Be an indian. A student has a backpack so crammed full of loose papers and random flotsam, he can’t find anything he needs. I get right down on the floor with him and pull everything out and begin making piles, and I skip the Big Chief bit (I don’t say: What a mess! You should be neater! When will you ever learn to be more organized?)
  2. Listen and commiserate. It can be genuinely helpful to simply listen while people b%tch and moan, so long as work is getting done at the same time. Plenty of students grumble and mutter about how “school sucks” ¬†and “why do we have to learn this stuff?”…and if they’re doing their algebra or writing their paper as they gripe, I just nod and say things along the lines of “yup, I hear ‘ya,” and keep on working. (A lecture on Why School Doesn’t Really Suck or You Ought to Have More Respect for All This Important Knowledge would be the opposite of helpful; it would stop the work and also cause bad feelings).
  3. Don’t rush to solve their problem. I find that people often appreciate it more when I act as a sounding board, letting them talk out their problems and brainstorm their own solutions out loud. They’re often not asking me for advice or problem-solving. I try and wait until they’ve talked a while, and then I might gently ask Would you like to hear my suggestion? or May I tell you something that seems relevant to your situation? (And sometimes, believe it or not! they pass up my offer of free wisdom).
  4. Shine a spotlight on their strengths. The nature of any problem is that it focuses attention on weakness. It can be very helpful, therefore, to tilt attention towards strengths. When I edit a student’s writing, the first thing I do is point out three features I liked in their piece; then, I ask them to find three things they liked. Finally, we choose three corrections to make.
  5. Avoid inflating the problem. My mom wanted her coffee table moved from the living room to the den. Period. Why make an easy thing so hard? I find there’s something luxurious in the simple act of asking for help and then getting precisely the help I asked for, no more and no less. There’s also something deeply satisfying in responding to another person’s request for assistance swiftly and completely, without digression or over-analysis or fanfare. It feels clean and honest and respectful.

I’d love to hear your tips! What ways have you found to be genuinely helpful?

How to Be Genuinely Helpful: 5 Tips

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS is an educator, counselor, writer and speaker. She's been a tutor, test prep coach and home school teacher for over thirty years. Click HERE to visit Leigh's website and to subscribe to her newsletter, "Learning Something New."

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APA Reference
Cousins, L. (2011). How to Be Genuinely Helpful: 5 Tips. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2020, from


Last updated: 31 Jul 2011
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