Over the past couple of weeks I’ve encountered a larger-than-normal spate of requests from third parties concerned about the career welfare of significant others in their lives: From a sister whose brother is ending a twenty year engagement as a senior officer with the military and is clueless about what is the next stop on his career path. From a wife whose husband, despite earning an income that puts him squarely in the top couple of percent of Americans, is struggling to meet his family’s expenses, topped by the $150,000 a year he pays for his sons’ private schooling. From a mother whose daughter both seems unable to keep a job and is seemingly unconcerned about that. And from a son whose mother, despite holding two Ph.D.s, is immobilized by feeling that she is unemployable.*
As well-intentioned as these people may be, they all initially approached the issue in the wrong way – by suggesting, advising, recommending, or in frustration at the lack of response, pushing, or nagging. A natural response to bearing witness to the career turmoil of a loved one. But an approach that hasn’t worked.
Why is there such maddening resistance from people who are clearly stuck? There’s a great deal of shame attached to most of these situations. Although those suggesting outside help certainly intend to be helpful, the recipients of the “advice” feel that they’ve failed at solving the issue they’re facing (or in some cases that they are failures in general) and the hectoring of people close to them, no matter how well-intentioned, merely amplifies these feelings.
Often an adult child is naturally going to be resistant to a parent’s suggestion that it would be wise to seek help from an outsider; the suggestion can make the child feel infantilized. Or a husband may feel that he’s failing in the traditional male role of provider and anything that draws attention to that is intensely painful, and therefore avoided. Or a parent may be guilty that he or she has wound up in a situation that causes some level of distress to their children.
Career advice will be more readily accepted if it comes from 1) someone who is significantly older (e.g. a grandparent); 2) someone who is seen as agenda-less (a view that few children have of their parents); 3) someone who is seen as having walked a very similar path, including a struggle with perceived failure. I attribute much of my success in resolving the types of dilemmas described above to my having all three of those characteristics.
I ascribe to two principles that I believe underlie the best way to help others. First, seek to “pull” them into a more open place by trying to get them to come forward with their worries, rather than “pushing” them into a particular path towards a solution. Being an open and supportive listener can be difficult when the people you’re committed to helping are clearly viewing their situation through an overly dark lens. But if those people can feel that they’re being heard and understood they will be more open to suggestions. BUT don’t offer advice unless it’s specifically asked for. A more general invitation such as “It sounds like you’re really stuck (or hopeless or scared or….) Is there anything I can do to help?” can open a door to the possibility of making a suggestion that will be entertained rather than reflexively rejected.
Second, direct their thoughts to previous success. Engage them in conversations about times that they were able to surmount difficulties (even if long ago, and even if the difficulties were kind of small). Letting people be reminded in this way of their ability to overcome challenges makes it more likely that they will incline to action.
* Note that three out of these four subjects are women. This is a phenomenon I’ve consistently encountered over the years. It has been my experience that women are far more likely to seek help for others than are men, in part (in my view) because men are more reluctant to confess the need for help than are women, and in part because women in general (please forgive the stereotype, but it tends to be true) are more empathetic and concerned for the welfare of others.