When Someone's Struggling, Don't Rescue. Help Them Rescue Themselves

Barry Davret


Licensed from Shutterstock // Pazargic Liviu

For the first time in my adult life, I was broke, jobless, and out of options. Holding back a few tears, I phoned a former mentor, hoping he could supply a miracle or two.

When I arrived at his office, he invited me to sit. Ashamed of my circumstances, I said nothing, but he forced me to vomit out the truth about my fledgling business.

My one shot at entrepreneurship had collapsed, but I refused to recognize it’s death, clinging to the delusion that I could resurrect it. All the while, my bank account bled until only wisps of life remained.

“Your business is dead,” he said.

Part of me sensed it months earlier. That’s why I hedged and prepared for life after entrepreneurship. I explained how I had spent a lot of time acquiring skills for a new career and needed help moving forward.

“New skills?” he asked. “Teach me something.”

As I spoke, he responded with questions and took notes. For the first time in almost a year, I felt useful.

We chatted for a few minutes longer, and then he looked at his notes again.

“I should share this with my team,” he said. He then rattled off a few ideas about how his team might benefit.

Cool, I thought. He really did find my knowledge of Project Management valuable. I felt validated. We finally got down to the meat of the conversation. I needed help but didn’t have the funds to hire someone of his caliber to assist me.

He offered to coach me for free, but with one catch. He’d counsel me, but I’d have to do the work, take actions that would push me out of my comfort zone, and never question his instructions. I agreed since I had no other options.

Two days later, I called almost everyone in my network and asked if they could connect me with a hiring manager. The few that didn’t rebuff me were noncommital. My mentor had me call back and act pushy. I hated doing that, but I did it. And it worked.

Fifteen days later, I flew to New York City and received a verbal commitment for a six-figure job — a position way beyond my qualifications. Whew.

But then the inevitable happened—silence from the hiring manager. I huddled with my mentor. He gave me a script and told me to say it word-for-word on the hiring manager’s voicemail.

“Are you insane?” I asked. “It’s insulting. I’ll never get the job.”

“And you’ll be no worse off than you are now. But at least you’ll know.”

I left the voice mail as instructed. For the next hour, I sweated through my clothes, pacing back and forth in my tiny apartment. When the manager finally called, he apologized and confirmed the job offer. I stayed with that organization for more than a decade.

How to help someone rescue themselves

My mentor had helped me rescue myself by following a four-step approach.

Force them feel useful.

When I walked into my mentor’s office, my lack of self-worth must have been evident. Instead of trying to pump me up with a barrage of motivational quotes, he asked me to share my knowledge. As I did so, he asked questions and took notes.

For the first time in over a year, I had felt useful. Today, I take that feeling for granted. Back then, I had been on year’s long steady decline, offering no value to anyone. Feeling useful, even for a few minutes, sparked the pinch of motivation I needed to generate momentum.

To help someone rebuild their self-worth, give them a chance to be useful. It’s the base upon which they’ll rebuild themselves.

Validate them.

What we refer to as validation is the recognition or affirmation that a person’s feelings, skills, and opinions are valid and valued.

When my mentor said he’d share my knowledge with his team, it was a form of validation. Rather than saying, “Your knowledge is valuable,” he demonstrated it by asking to share it with others and explaining how he’d use it.

Everyone craves validation. It’s neither a character flaw nor a weakness. If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t seek “likes” on social media or celebrate when someone tells us they enjoy reading our work. It’s emotional feedback that fulfills a bottomless reservoir; we often look the other way when someone offers it sincerely.

When we feel validated, we start believing we’re capable of more than what we’ve achieved. It primes us for the next step.

Make them to aim higher.

For weeks, I blasted out resumes to jobs where I felt safely qualified. My mentor insisted I go after executive positions, several notches above my ability and experience.

I didn’t end up at that level, but I landed several rungs higher than if I had played it safe. I negotiated a six-figure deal in 2005, a time when my experience and skills qualified for much less.

Encourage the people you help to aim higher than what they believe they deserve. Too often, we undervalue ourselves, especially in the midst of a downturn.

By aiming higher, we give ourselves a compelling goal, supplying us the emotional fortitude to believe in ourselves and the motivation to raise our competencies.

Insist they do things they’re afraid to do.

There was nothing my mentor told me to do that I couldn’t accomplish without his prodding. I knew I had to call my network. I knew I had to face a ton of rejection before finding success. But without someone holding me accountable, I couldn’t do it, even though my future depended on it.

By forcing me to commit to him and asking for proof of my work, he had made it so that my fear of disappointing him exceeded my fear of rejection and failure.

In most cases, when someone’s struggling, they know what they need to do to escape the quicksand. They resist because leaving their comfort zone forces them to face their fear of uncertainty.

All you need to know

When you find yourself in a position to rescue a drowning friend, peer, or mentee, don’t throw them a life preserver. Instead, show them how to swim. That’s how you help someone become their own hero.

  • Make them feel useful
  • Validate them
  • Please encourage them to aim higher
  • Make them do things they’re afraid to do

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Experimenter in life, productivity, and creativity. My work can be found in publications across the internet

Summit, NJ

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