Real Helpfulness Can’t Be Made into a Formula

When prescribed behaviors fall short of resolving our challenges, what we really need is a new way of seeing things.

By The Arbinger Institute | December 06, 2019

Terry Olson tells of the following experience that began in a workshop he was conducting for public-school teachers.

They were using a room at a lockdown educational facility for elementary-aged children with severe behavioral problems. Some of the teachers from that school were eavesdropping at the back of the room. In the middle of the presentation, one of these teachers at the back asked a question about how to handle a boy who was becoming increasingly unmanageable. In fact, although they had frequently used the “time-out” room (a small, locked, carpeted cubicle used to isolate disruptive children) to discipline the boy, he seemed to be getting worse. He would settle down briefly after a time-out experience and then would become even more disruptive than before.

The most dramatic of his antics had occurred the prior week, when a serviceman delivering soda to the vending machines left a school door open while he maneuvered a loaded hand truck inside. The unmanageable boy, Toby, had just bolted from his classroom (a frequent occurrence) and was hiding in the refreshment area when the delivery gave him the opportunity to escape. Running out into the schoolyard, Toby tore off all his clothes and began running through the park. Before long, Toby, naked, was being chased down by a score of panicked teachers.

When We See People as Objects

“So, what do you do with a student like that?” the teacher asked. Terry told the questioner that he had no magic solution but suggested that if the boy became increasingly unmanageable after being locked in the time-out room, maybe he was not responding to the particular punishment as much as he was rebelling against being seen and treated like an object. “Objects do what you want them to do,” Terry explained. “You can throw a washcloth in the sink, kick a soccer ball across a field, or push clothes into a laundry bag. But when you try to throw, kick, or push people, they often resist. Toby might be resisting the idea of being a ‘thing.’”

Terry suggested to the teachers that if none of their disciplinary techniques were working with Toby, perhaps they should consider a different approach. Instead of chasing him down when he bolted from class and putting him in the time-out room, Terry invited them to imagine new possibilities. He said, “What if you asked this question of yourselves: If I were to give my heart to this boy, what would occur to me to do?” He then invited them to act on what occurred to them to do.

“If I Were to Give My Heart to This Boy, What Would Occur to Me to Do?”

Two weeks later, Terry was back in the facility for another workshop session. He wondered what, if anything, had developed with Toby. The teachers from the school were eager to report. One woman recounted the following experience: Toby ran out of my room two days after we had talked, and instead of sending my aide after him immediately, I continued teaching. After a few minutes, I turned the class over to my aide and went looking for Toby myself. I found him in the auditorium, “hiding” under a blanket. Toby hid as many second graders do—his leg was sticking out from under the blanket. I asked myself that question, “If I were to give my heart to this boy, what would occur to me to do?” Immediately, I thought of those days as a child when I had played hide-and-go-seek. Almost on an impulse, I got down on the floor and crawled under the blanket with Toby. He was more than startled. I said, “Look, I can’t play hide and go seek with you now; I’ve got a class to teach. But if you still want to play when it’s recess, I will come and find you.” At recess I went back to the auditorium. It seemed he had not moved. I pulled the blanket off and said, “Found you!” I then explained I wanted to be “it” again, and threw the blanket over my head. “I’ll count to 25,” I said. He stood there until I got to ten. Then he hesitatingly ran out of the auditorium. I searched. I found him in a classroom pressed into a vertical broom closet. I started counting again. I found him for the third time as the bell rang. I explained that I had to go teach now. Twenty minutes later he almost sneaked into my classroom and slid into his chair.

He has not been perfect, but I have been different. When he misbehaves, that question of yours has become an echo in my brain: “If I were to give my heart…?” Sometimes I stop everything and ask him a question. Sometimes I ask him to help someone else. Sometimes I explain that I need help. Sometimes I explain to him that he just “can’t do that,” and I go on. He settles down. It is a day-by-day thing, but I am different with him. He seems different to me, even when he acts up.

Real Helpfulness Can’t Be Made into a Formula

This teacher discovered what all outward individuals and organizations know: real helpfulness can’t be made into a formula. To be outward doesn’t mean that people should adopt this or that prescribed behavior. Rather, it means that when people see the needs, challenges, desires, and humanity of others, the most effective ways to adjust their efforts occur to them in the moment. When they see others as people, they respond in human and helpful ways. They naturally adjust what they do in response to the needs they see around them. With an outward mindset, adjusting one’s efforts naturally follows from seeing others in a new way.

This post is an excerpt from The Outward Mindset: Seeing Beyond Ourselves. Curious about how an outward mindset resolves issues in a corporate setting? Check out this other excerpt from The Outward Mindset, When It Comes to Organizational Change Efforts, Don’t Wait for Others to Take the First Step.”