The how of helping

content help shake hands

Have you ever come across the type of person who:

  • says ‘yes’ to everything – they go out of their way to respond to requests for help
  • is a people-pleaser – they seek to gain approval from others by accommodating their requests and needs
  • jumps in to fix other people’s problems – they delight in offering solutions, freely sharing their opinions and advice?

Perhaps you work with people like this? Maybe these points describe you? Perhaps they describe someone in your family or social group? There was a time when I’d personally have ticked all three.

I’ve always been interested in the theme of helping, but my research really began 20 years ago when I worked in clinical psychology in the UK's National Health Service. I came across colleagues who helped others so much they were exhausted. I worked with patients who wouldn’t accept help even though they needed it. I worked with trainees who’d offer advice although they weren’t qualified to give it.

More recently, I’ve worked with people who aren’t in the caring professions and yet would describe themselves as particularly empathic, helpful or compassionate. They work across a range of industries and, while many are found in human resource or professional service roles, others are technical specialists or self-employed entrepreneurs.

The fact that these lovely, helpful types are everywhere is partly why I ran a workplace wellbeing workshop, on the theme of 'helping others and yourself', for ACCA’s Accounting for the Future virtual conference last November. It’s a popular topic! There were so many questions I didn’t get the chance to answer them all on the live Q&A, so I’ve pulled out three main themes that I’d like to tackle below.

Saying no

How can you say no without feeling guilty?

The fundamental point here is to remember that you have rights, too. Irrespective of what colleagues (or others) are asking you or why they’re asking you, you have every right to say no and not give any explanation. However, as that is a position that is almost impossible for empathic or compassionate people to put into practice, here are some tips:

Discover. Why has this person come to you? What’s the full extent of the support they need? By getting clarity, you may both discover that a different solution is required – and one that doesn’t need to involve you.

Divulge. Explain why you are saying no at this time. Give them the whole truth. It’s possible they’ll ignore or try to downplay your other priorities, in which case simply repeat your reasons. If they’re caring people, they’ll understand and ask someone else.

Discuss. This is useful if someone in a more senior role is requesting your help but you don’t have time or you believe it’s beyond your contract. You could enter into a negotiating conversation, where you push back without seeming too dismissive. Try making some alternative suggestions (‘Have you asked Ali? He is between projects and has more time.’). Tell them when you will have more time to respond (‘I’ll have more time after Tuesday; please ask me then if you still need my help.’). Book a meeting to talk through the details and return to the ‘discover’ stage.


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Offering support

How can you support colleagues afraid to ask for help?

This is such a complex topic that it’s probably best answered by reflecting on the following questions.

First, how can you be sure those colleagues are not getting help from someone?

Second, why do you think they are not asking for help? What are they are afraid of?

Third, helping relationships are based on trust, understanding and psychological safety. If this person doesn’t feel these things exist in their relationship with you, then the most you can do is offer to find someone else to help them.

Tuning in

How can you help without offering solutions?

You can do this by simply listening or spending time with someone. Simple! But when was the last time you sat and listened to someone talk about themselves without eagerly jumping in to share your opinion or talk about your own experience? I’m not judging – we all do it. It’s the nature of conversation, and it’s the nature of helping, too. But sometimes patience is what is called for.

It may be that the most effective help you can give is in the form of a non-judgmental ear. Tuning into that person in that moment, and validating their experience (regardless of whether it resonates with you), might be all they need.

Author: Jess Baker is a business psychologist and leadership coach

This article was first published in AB magazine January 2022

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