Are You Helping Or Harming?

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Words. Phrases. Lyrics. It’s often the spark for ideas, questions, and conversation. Connection ensues.

Communication isn’t the same as connecting.

We communicate by speaking, writing, and body language. Communication is one person sending and one receiving. But that’s not connecting. Communication is aimed at intellectually understanding. Connecting is aimed at emotional understanding. That’s how relationships are built. And that’s more often than not how these episodes are formed. Makes sense because Leaning Toward Wisdom is a collaborative endeavor.

Do you think we’ve connected? Is there any emotional bond between us? As a listener to this podcast, I hope we’ve found some sort of connection. Otherwise, I doubt you’d be listening.

Connection requires the people involved to get in. I got in on day one with you years ago when I started this podcast. I’m hoping you’ll get in – if you haven’t already – and contribute to making this Leaning Toward Wisdom connection work for you?

It started with a conversation about kindness versus niceness. I’ve discussed that before so I won’t dive too deeply into it again today except to point out that being kind is helpful, being nice is mostly about being polite – but not likely being very helpful. Which is where the conversation quickly went to with the question, “What’s helpful? What’s hurtful?” The context was challenging with kindness.

Focusing in on the word “hurtful,” I offered a counter. Let’s make it harmful instead because it be hurtful to pour alcohol on a skinned knee of our child, but it’s helpful. Harmful is something entirely different though. It’s detrimental.

When you make your living by coaching people to higher performance you have to lean heavily into kindness because until people feel completely safe, you can’t serve them. Safe means we know – with certainty – that people have our best interest at heart. They want us to succeed. They want us to thrive. They want us to grow. They’re committed to helping and equally committed to avoiding harming us.

Being challenged isn’t always fun, but when it’s done in safety it’s not harmful. Uncomfortable? Almost always. Putting us in a position where we’re driven to think more deeply? Always. Giving us a choice of how to respond? Always.

As my friend and I talk about helping or harming it was clear we were really talking about some different scenarios and different kinds of people. There are times when people may think they’re being helpful, but they’re not. Times when people are disguising being harmful as helpful. Times when people may genuinely want to help, but go about it so poorly they harm.

I’m fond of how the British refer to coaching as being in the helping business. I think of myself as being in the helping business. I’d hate to think of myself as being in the harming business. Criminals are in the harming business. Immoral businesses are in the harming business. Sin businesses are in the harming business. Look around…there’s an awful lot of profit and feverish activity in the harming business.

Last week I pointed out what’s on my whiteboard.

It’s implied in my whiteboard statement that I’m trying to figure out how to make the biggest POSITIVE difference. The biggest HELPFUL difference.

Am I always successful? No, I don’t always succeed at my intended consequences.

There are unintended consequences. Would that we were always judged by our intentions. Or would that be good?

Are our intentions always honorable? Do you really want to be judged by your intentions?

Sometimes our intentions may be rightly aimed at helpful, but sometimes not.

I stumbled across a documentary on Amazon Prime the other day, The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain. It’s a 2014 documentary about a young man, a quarterback from Springdale, Arkansas. A phenom playing for then high-school coach Gus Malzahn, who later went on to become Offensive Coordinator at Arkansas, then Tulsa and would up as head coach of Auburn before being fired and now he’s at Central Flordia.  Mitch, and a core group of his offensive buddies, had wild success in Arkansas high school football playing for Malzahn. The entire core group all got D1 scholarships.

I’m watching this story of coaches, adults, tasked with helping young men, high school, and college-age guys. Throughout the documentary, I wondered about the role of these adults and thought about my conversation with my friend. Are these adults being helpful or harmful? Particularly, in his football life was Mitch Mustain helped or harmed? Did these people have his interest at heart or did they have their own best interest at heart?

Credit. Who will get the credit? That so often is at the heart of the matter. Arkansas head coach – at the time – Houston Nutt versus Gus Malzahn, the offensive coordinator he was pressured to hire so he could successfully recruit these kids from Springdale. Nutt, the run, run, run coach. Malzahn, the throw-it-all-over-the-field control freak. The kids? Likely pawns in a much bigger game not entirely played on the football field.

Conflict with upperclassmen who resented these new flashy freshmen coming in. Divided locker rooms. Divided loyalties. People chasing the spotlight. People pursuing credit so they can outshine their peers. Classic conflict of who is larger and more in charge. Who will shine brightest?

Neither Nutt nor Malzahn participated in the documentary. I get it. Not much to gain by speaking out. Meanwhile, Mitch doesn’t come across as filled with blame. He doesn’t seem bitter. Rather, he’s pretty matter-of-fact about it all. Some argue that he didn’t have D1 college skills. Others think he was victimized by selfish coaches. I don’t know what’s real or true, but I do think he – and many young athletes of all ages – suffer sometimes at the hands of people who declare they’re trying to help, but they’re not. Maybe they’re not trying to be harmful, but by watching out mostly for themselves, everybody else is just collateral damage.

But then I wonder about coming in specific chapters in somebody’s life. A coach. A player. A group of coaches or players. Does that accurately depict who they are? Not likely. But it may.

Over the years, coach Malzahn has shown himself to be a pompous, smartest-man-in-the-room kind of a guy. That doesn’t mean he is, but many people have described him that way. Media and others. I have no way to know. I’ve never met him. He may be just the opposite of those things for all I know. I know one chapter does not our entire story make. But I also know that our story is the sum of our chapters and if we write a number of chapters that have a consistent theme – then we’re likely telling the truth.

It speaks to this conversation I’m having with a friend about helpful or harmful though. A person would open the book to my life and happen on a chapter that isn’t my best and conclude from a paragraph, a page, or an entire chapter, “He’s not helpful. He’s harmful.” That’s absolutely possible.

When I think about our stories and chapters I realize we could open the book on somebody’s life – anybody’s life – and find horrible stories of defeat, sorrow, sadness, challenge, suffering, even despair. The lows might be very low for some. Less so for others. Ditto on the highs. Read a chapter on the highs for Elon Musk and they’re going to be vastly higher than any highs I’ve ever – or ever will – experience. But no matter. Everybody has chapters of highs and lows. Is it fair to judge any of us on a single chapter? Probably not.

The conversation morphs to how we show up. How people see us.

I remind my conversation partner that three years ago I experienced a family tragedy that wrecked me. You’ve experienced sorrow and been knocked to your knees before. Mat Kearney, a Nashville-based (originally from Oregon) singer/songwriter had a hit song years ago, Closer To Love. There’s a lyric in that song, “we’re all one phone call from our knees.”

Have you ever lost somebody you loved? Most of us have. Did you map out your grief? No, it’s organic. It happens and you react. Always at your best. Maybe not. But it is what it is.

My tragedy changed me. It changed my demeanor. It changed almost everything. Did I plan on it? Of course not. Did I enjoy it? Not one bit.

We look at the circumstances others endure and think, “I’d deal with that differently.” Would you though? How do you know?

We may think we know, but until faced with it…we don’t really know. In some situations in the past 3 years, I’ve grown tremendously. In other situations, it’s not been my best. Grief is like that though. It’s a process and you wake up each day either with determination or resignation. Some days you experience both – many times. It’s a roller coaster ride known best by those of us who are in it – whatever IT is. We’ve all got our burdens.

Our individual struggles can propel us toward greater empathy or greater judgment. I’m sure some folks look at me and think, “He should be over that by now.” Maybe they’re right. But I’m not. And there are details that only my closest family members know. My journey didn’t’ happen 3 years ago and end. There have been numerous stories built all along the way. But nobody knows! I don’t feel it’s my job to share all the gory details. I just hope along the way I get a bit of grace. Mostly, I do. But sometimes I don’t. Such is life.

I’m not intentionally hanging onto it. It just lingers, like a storm cloud that refuses to be blown away. I don’t know what to do other than to ride it out knowing I have no idea how long it may take. Because the story is still being written. And in my case, somebody else is writing the story while I’m busy trying to write my own – as best I can. You already know I refuse to see myself as a victim, but in one sense – we’re all victims. Victims to the writing others are doing, the choices they’re making in their life that impact our life. So we respond, react and make our choices based on the hand we’re dealt. We take full responsibility for what happens to us knowing it’s the only path forward. But it doesn’t make us infallible. Or always getting it right in real-time. Mostly, I think – in our best moments – we’re working hard to figure it out so we can get it right. Failure is part of figuring it out.

But it’s not always a matter of right or wrong. Of success or failure. Sometimes, it’s like my grief, it’s just life and working every day to endure it and looking for some way forward so you can not be paralyzed and fall into an abyss.

You think you know how you’d respond to a circumstance you’ve not yet experienced. But you really don’t know.

My circumstance happened and I responded. Because life demands you respond. You try to deploy your best wisdom and find yourself doing what you have to.

I learned long ago that life’s problems are either overcome or endured. We can’t overcome every sorrow or struggle. We have to endure it and figure out how life can move forward. It takes however long it takes.

Grief is something people enjoy judging. I don’t know what your grief looks like. My grief doesn’t always look the same. I’ve lost grandparents and close friends. For me to judge somebody based on what I think their response to grief should be…that doesn’t seem right.

When it comes to being helpful or harmful we have to figure out which lane we want to be in.

“What do you think about people who intentionally are harmful, but they do it under the guise of being helpful?” he asks.

“You’re talking about hypocrisy,” I said.

Pretending to be one thing while being something different. That was the conversation. “What do you do with that?” he asked. “I don’t have any deep answers other than you protect yourself,” I said.

But vulnerability works, too. It gets complicated quickly. Protect yourself. Open yourself up. How do you do both? At the same time?

My best answer was, “Be selective.” We have to discern whether somebody is helpful to us or whether they’re harmful.

“What do you do?” he asked.

Over the next few minutes, I recounted to him instances where I simply withdrew and ended a relationship. Professional circumstances where there was no ill-will, no ill-intentions – just a situation where all parties were no longer getting much from the relationship. So we part ways. And that’s that. It happens every single day in business. And it can happen in life, too. Friendships where it’s largely one-sided so it fades and eventually ends. That’s usually how things go for most of us.

Sometimes there’s an event – a moment where things go south. Disagreements or conflicts happen. Since I was a little boy I’ve worked to be a peacemaker. Mostly ’cause I didn’t want to see anybody get in trouble. And I certainly wanted to avoid trouble for myself. I learned, at an early age, to quickly distance from people determined to make trouble. I knew better – thanks to parental training – to avoid letting people negatively influence me. Over the years, I’ve tried to be even quicker at making those determinations because time is precious and protection is important.

Simultaneously, I’m prone to be open with people willing bent toward empathy. It’s not hard for me to share, connect and engage with people who feel safe with me. I can see how people might get gun-shy to be open, but I don’t think that’s worthwhile – not for me. I don’t want to risk losing what might otherwise be a great connection for me and for the other person. Life is too short and too hard. We need others and so I’m always ready to be available.

“When somebody proves harmful, what do you do?” I’m asked.

“I walk away,” I replied. “Sometimes I run,” I joked.

“Have you ever had somebody who wouldn’t let you walk away?”

“Once. And I told them repeatedly they were unsafe for me. I repeatedly attempted to ask them to leave me alone.” That’s all you can do, I think. Of course, it depends on who they are to you. I know people who have such relationships in their families. That makes it difficult, but I can only assume. It’s always harder if some context puts you in the same space as the harmful person consistently. There aren’t any cut-and-dried answers here. As with many things, we have to figure out what we need to do. I don’t judge being harmful – a person or a circumstance – lightly. I have compelling evidence which shows me it’s in my best interest to steer clear. And that’s what I choose to do.

I tell my friend that for me there are two important factors and in this order: spiritual welfare and mental (or emotional welfare). And both of them intersect.

Because God is first I’m committed to protecting myself spiritually. Usually, I’m the one doing myself damage in this regard. Selfishness is the killer. For all of us. We want what we want and in some moments of temptation, we surrender to what we want rather than what God wants for us. I’m sometimes guilty of that.

Then I have to be mindful of people and situations that might cause me spiritual harm. There are people who are not good for me to be around. Some because they live in a way that I don’t want to. Some because they don’t have my best spiritual interests at heart. It’s up to each of us to determine what best moves us forward and what hinders us. What’s helpful and what’s harmful.

My mental health matters mostly because it has such a strong impact on my spiritual health. And most everything else. You know that to be true in your own life. How you feel and what you think determines everything. So we have to guard our heart – our mind. You can’t expose it to just anything or anybody. If you do, it’s a high-risk proposition.

There’s only ever been one person I’ve told, “You’re the most unsafe person on the planet for me.” And I’ve told them that twice. To their face. They’ll leave me alone for a bit, but usually, something compels them to cycle back around to me with some accusatory, judgmental conversation. And when it happens again (and I rather suspect it will), I’ll repeat myself and do my very best to keep my guard up so I can protect my spiritual and mental welfare. Because that’s my responsibility to myself. To avoid harm. And to avoid harming!

Now, what about you? What about me?

Are we helpful or harmful?

Don’t get sucked into thinking that you’re the right person for everybody. Or for every situation. Nobody is.

There are people in your life for whom you’re the ideal person to help. There are others for whom you’re the most ideal person to harm. Even unintentionally. So often we impose ourselves into the lives of others – perhaps arrogantly thinking it’s our job, or our role, to help – but we may be wrong. Body language. Verbal cues. Bold statements. By paying attention to how others respond to us, or don’t – we can better determine if we can help. And if we can’t help, best to avoid things altogether. Why risk harming simply because we can’t help? We do that when we make it more about us than them. Our desire to be somebody’s hero won’t make us a hero. Best to stop trying and leave things alone so somebody else might help.

We’ve likely heard that the oath doctors take is, “First, do no harm.” Well, that’s not true. Doctors cut us open. They poke. They prod. Sometimes doctors hurt us, but it’s in an effort to help us. Sometimes in my coaching clients are hurt by coming face to face with some realities they’ve never faced before. Not to cause them pain or injury, but to help them move forward with growth, improvement, and change. Surgery, and self-enlightenment, aren’t fun! But they can be life-changing profitable.

But to avoid doing harm, that may be as great a gift as helping. To know when to refrain. When to step back. When to walk away. Lest we’re guilty of harming somebody.

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