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The Nearly Perfect Question

The Nearly Perfect Question

Not too long ago, a friend stopped me to ask for some advice. Now, I’m absolutely certain that the world would be a far better place if more people did this, maybe the President, Congress, or even the board of my condo association. So, I was primed to share the benefit of my wisdom when asked.

It seems that my friend had seen someone who was blind, apparently confused and disoriented, and stopped to offer assistance and, for his trouble, was told in no uncertain terms that his assistance was neither asked for nor wanted. My friend is exceptionally thoughtful and interpersonally sensitive and so was chagrined and wanted to know how he should have handled the situation.

While I didn’t realize it at the time, the answer I gave was very close to what I’ve come to think of as the nearly perfect question. Before sharing what that was, let me digress to share a story of one of my favorite people.

Tammy Lenski is one of the foremost mediators and conflict coaches in the country. (I’m something of an electronic groupie, following her blog religiously.) She recently told of a time when she came home after a day of putting out fires as a university vice president.

She complained to her husband about the unreasonable faculty, entitled students, and narrow-minded administrators she had been forced to deal with all day. Wanting to be helpful, her husband began to offer advice which, as she acknowledges, only made things worse until the conversation ended:

Tammy: I don’t need advice on this.
Husband: Then why did you complain to me about it?
Tammy: Because you asked about my day.
Husband: I’m just trying to help.
Tammy: I didn’t ask for help.
Husband: Fine!

Everything changed, however, when her husband asked a simple question: “How can I be most helpful to you now’.” This opened the door for her to say that all she wanted was some understanding of how awful the day had been and a little sympathy, not advice. This, in turn, guaranteed her husband that he was doing exactly the right thing.

It’s tempting for us to rush in and provide unsolicited advice or help. After all, doing it makes us feel good about ourselves, and we just know the other person has benefitted by our wise counsel.

The only drawback is the assumption that we really know what the other person wants and the certainty that they will be far better off by following our advice.

How simple it is to simply ask. This virtually guarantees that the answer, whatever it is, will be right for both parties. It is just as acceptable to say, “Yes, I’d like …” as it is to say, “No, I’m good.”

I have no idea whether the person my friend was offering to help really needed it or not. There certainly have been times in my own life when, trying to figure out an unfamiliar environment, I look confused because I was. Alternatively, there have been just as many times when a well-intentioned stranger was absolutely positive I needed to be saved from an environment I had negotiated every day for years. As I suggested to my friend, the nearly perfect question is “May I be of any help?” I say nearly because there is no wording that can guarantee that the other person will accurately interpret your intent, but this wording is about as close to perfection as I think it is possible to come.

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