Asking for Help ~ Part I

Every person, all the events of your life, are there because you have drawn them there. What you choose to do with them is up to you.
- Richard Bach

When I attend presentations, I go with the understanding that no matter what the topic may be, I can learn something from the speaker and the program. This mindset helps me to search for the positive. A few months ago I attended a presentation on humor in the workplace. I readily admit I was very skeptical about attending. The presenter's bio was all over the map. He had been a restaurateur, stand-up comic and now, in his latest incarnation, a motivational speaker. After a resounding recommendation from a woman I know and trust, I registered for the program.

That night the room was packed. Dinner was dreadful, but the room filled with anticipation as the speaker took the stage. He told a few stories, did a bit of his act and then moved on to audience participation exercises. The first volunteer was brought to the front of the room for a game where she needed to think on her feet. It was very slow going at first, but then she caught on. Towards the end, she came to an abrupt halt. Her face started to flush, her eyes began to dart back and forth, and she was shifting her weight from foot to foot. Sensing her discomfort, I offered some help.

The speaker's reprimand was swift and fast. He immediately turned on me. "Did she ask for your help?!?" he roared. "No" I replied while surveying the room for exits. Next he turned to the woman sternly said "Did you need her help?" "No" came the tentative reply. "I would have come up with the next line…eventually" said the woman. The game resumed and then concluded. The woman took her seat. I listened with half an ear to the rest of the presentation. My brain was racing. I have always thought offering help was the polite thing to do. Was I wrong to offer my assistance? The question "did she ask for your help?" was ringing in my ears.

Driving home, I was still thinking about the speaker's question, but with an entirely different reference than the evening's entertainment. For over two years I had been volunteering with a community organization to help resolve an ongoing issue. The committee was comprised of volunteer and organizational members. It was tough work and progress was unbelievably slow. The volunteer committee members and I all wondered why the organization was having such difficulties in this area. It was clear to all of the volunteers that this was an area in dire need of attention. The organizational committee members would agree to benchmarks and goals, but rarely completed their deliverables. At each meeting, the committee would strain forward and the organization would reluctantly commit to the next phase. Most of the volunteer committee members just stopped attending meetings.

I kept plugging along. But I was tired and discouraged. During my drive home, a small light of recognition was flickering in the back of my brain. Could it be? Is it possible? Perhaps, there was a slight chance that the community organization did not want the committee's help? As I thought back over the past two years, suddenly the organizational committee members' behavior made so much sense. Though they would verbally agree to items in the meetings, their hesitant and inconsistent follow-through spoke volumes.

Maybe I was jumping to conclusions. I decided to wait and watch. Another committee meeting was already on the calendar. Armed with this newfound perspective, I decided to look for clues that the community organization really did want help. The next meeting was similar to those in the past; the only difference was my new outlook. It became clear to me that while the committee volunteers were more than willing to help, the organization did not want help. After the meeting ended, one of the highest ranking organizational members actually said in an off hand comment to me that the committee's work was merely "window dressing." The small light of recognition was now a huge, glaring spotlight.

While most volunteer committee members left the meeting feeling frustrated, I felt freed. The organization had not asked for help in this area. The committee had been established as a board directive and clearly lacked buy-in from the staff. I was wasting my time continuing to volunteer for that particular committee. The next morning I tendered my resignation from the committee and found I no longer felt tired or discouraged. I felt light. And best of all, without those meetings on my calendar, I now had time to devote to committees, organizations and causes who really did want my help.

It is my sincerest hope that my readers take the following four lessons from this Mannersmith Monthly. First, every presenter, every teacher, every person and every child has life lessons to share. Be open to these inputs. Second, epiphanies can be triggered from the most unlikely of causes. Open your mind to these occasions. Third, by concluding an activity that is draining your time and energy, you open yourself to other more rewarding activities. Fourth, just because one volunteer opportunity did not work as you had hoped does not mean you should abandon volunteering. Just be sure that no matter where you volunteer your time, the organization has asked for help!