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The Secret of Life Is...Getting Help

by Doug Lipman

Table of Contents:

Breaking Up (the Mold) Is Hard To Do
The three impediments to getting help
A School of Purposes
What could I use helpers for?
The Kinds of Helpers
Parallel Playmates & Barter Buddies: What they do and how to train them.
See also: Planning Buddies
The Growth & Harvesting of Helpers
How do you find helpers?
What are the benefits of a long-term helping relationship?

When I was a freshman in high school, I had to take a course in "study skills." I learned ways to set up my work space, to set a timer for breaks, etc.

But there was no mention of working with someone else, or of getting help from anyone except a teacher!

In other words, I learned that if I wanted to get something done, I should go to my room alone. The more difficult something was, the more important it was to spend time alone doing it.

Since then, however, I've discovered a whole new way of working: with helpers.

Sure, I do many things alone. But all the difficult things - the things I have trouble getting to, or the things that confuse me or scare me - I do with help.

My rule of thumb is this: if I haven't been getting to something that I have decided to do, I must need help doing it.


Breaking Up (the Mold) Is Hard To Do

Some years ago, an intimate friend reproached me:

"You can't be depended on to get to anything that isn't on your calendar! What's wrong with you?"
Dutifully, I felt bad about myself.

Years later, however, it occurred to me that another point of view was possible: I noticed that I can get to anything, if I can just find a way to put it on my calendar! If I made appointments with helpers, I would get to whatever they helped me with.

Once I determined to get help, though, I found several impediments:

  • Getting help with personal tasks seemed wrong, like cheating on my homework.
    It felt like something was wrong with me for needing so much help.
  • I felt shy about asking for something so revealing of my shortcomings.
  • When my helpers didn't help me just right, I felt so hopeless that I wanted to forget the whole idea.

The First Impediment: Needing Help is Stigmatized

For many of us, the hardest part of getting help is that we view needing help as a sign of weakness, disease, or moral inferiority.

Why does our society think such a thing? One reason for people in the U.S., I think, is that we North Americans are, by and large, descendants of economic and religious refugees.

In other words, the people who most valued the web of helping relationships in other continents tended to stay there. Our ancestors in the U.S. (and we have spread our cultural values across the oceans) are the ones who would rather go into the wilderness and do it by themselves!

The Second Impediment: Asking for Help is Stigmatized

Once we admit we need help, the second difficulty is asking for it.

Men, in particular, are usually socialized in ways that can make this particularly hard.

If you were someone who has trouble asking directions when lost - as many men do - imagine how difficult it might be to ask another to listen to your feelings or to pay attention to you while you clean up your overdue paperwork!

The Third Impediment: Taking Charge of Our Help Seems Impossible

The third challenge to getting effective help is taking charge of how your helpers do their jobs.

In this case, the socialization of women can be especially troublesome.

Many children - especially girls - learn to do without help rather than to have their whole project taken away from them, or to let it be contaminated with reproach, humiliation or guilt.

These challenges are real. But overcoming them is liberating.

When we overcome these impediments,

  • We defy limitations placed on us by sex-role conditioning and by other aspects of our cultural background.
  • We learn that we can accomplish much more with appropriate help than without it.
  • We begin to take charge of our human resources and our priorities.


A School of Purposes

Over the years, I've realized that it makes sense for me to get help with a whole curriculum of subjects. Here's a partial list of what I use other people for:

  • listening to my stories, my ideas for stories, and my first attempts at telling a story
  • paying attention to me while I sort through unanswered letters or the mess on my office floor, or while I make difficult phone calls
  • doing various tasks that I always thought I "just have to do myself":
    • cleaning
    • answering my mail and phone messages
    • getting my financial information ready for my accountant.
  • keeping me company while I write, pay my bills, or answer the letters that I choose to answer myself
  • listening to me think, plan, make decisions, and have feelings.
  • helping me keep track of a project through periodic phone calls (the role of a "planning buddy".)

With such a large company of helpers, my calendar is busier than ever before. This crowding requires me to block out times to rest and to be with my family.

Is this a mechanical life, devoid of freedom of choice? For me, the answer is "No - it's the opposite!"

For the most part, my moments of making choices about how I spend my time have been removed from the daily grind (when, after all, it's often hard to think about long-term goals) and shifted to the moments when I write things on the calendar.

Thus, I make my time-use decisions in discrete chunks when my mind is on my schedule and my priorities - not in little dribbles while I'm being pulled in all directions by details.

Day-to-day, I just get myself to my next appointment.

As I go through my scheduled activities, I often have the sensation of going from one pair of helping arms to the next.

To make sure I don't over-schedule, I even have a helper with whom I discuss any new commitments. This helper is instructed to listen patiently, to give me his response to what I say, and then to ask:

"Great! So what are you planning to give up, to make room for this new commitment?"

Don't be stuck, get helpers

If you find yourself getting all the help you really need without making appointments, of course, then you don't need to change a thing.

But if some area of your life is suffering for lack of outside support, you can line up some helpers for just that problem area.

If your community lives a life with a slower pace (compared to mine in the frenetic urban northeast U.S.), it may be enough to just tell your friends what kind of help you need, knowing that they'll find spontaneous times to give it.

But if other methods don't work, make appointments!


The Kinds of Helpers

There are two basic kinds of helpers:

  1. Parallel Playmates
    In this kind of appointment, my helpers work on their own tasks while I work on mine.
  2. Barter Buddies
    In this kind of appointment, we take turns helping each other.
    We can have a range of roles, from passive listening to performing tasks for each other.

Parallel Playmates

Parallel playmates work on their own tasks while I work on mine, recreating the idea of "library dates" or "study halls."

For example, I have a "writing buddy." Our arrangment is:

  • We get together every week to work on our individual writing.
  • We begin and end each session with ten minutes of checking in with each other.
  • In the middle, we write separately.
  • We can ask for five minutes of being listened to, if either of us gets stuck or overwhelmed.

I actually have two writing buddies. One comes to my office to work. The other meets with me in a cafeteria half-way between our houses. (Laptop computers enable us to remain high-tech when away from home.)

Some parallel playmates don't even see each other.

My wife spends Friday mornings at home paying bills and doing other tasks that are hard for her. Her arrangement with her buddy is this:

  • She calls her buddy at 9:00am to check in.
  • Both of them work in their own homes for two hours, bouyed by the knowledge that they'll talk again.
  • Her buddy calls back to check in when their work session ends at 11:00am.
Of course, it doesn't matter that my wife's buddy isn't paying bills. She's doing something else that she needs help to get to.

Barter buddies

"Barter buddies" take turns in the roles of "helper" and "beneficiary."

For example, I have a "coaching buddy" who meets with me every week. Our time divides into three parts:

  1. We spend about an hour having breakfast and being friends.
  2. For the first half of the remaining two or three hours, I coach him on his stories and story ideas: I'm the helper, and he's the beneficiary.
  3. Then we switch roles: I tell, and he coaches me.

With other helpers, I take turns, but we barter for different services.

  • I coach one storyteller who then consults with me for an equal amount of time about marketing.
  • Another helper barters one hour of my consulting time (in which I help her with her storytelling business) for four hours of her time filing papers for me.

With each barter helper, I have a particular agreement about "paying" each other back:

  • Some helpers use a "pay as you go" approach, always giving and getting help at each appointment.
  • Others "keep an open account," taking help as they need it, and giving it as I need it, even if it takes months or even years to balance out.

Many Helpings

In the case of barter buddies, my helper can assist me in a variety of ways. Here's a list of the ways of helping I've learned about so far (I hope to keep adding to this list!):

  • Helping with a task
    • the helper does something I know how to do, doing it either for me or with me
    • the helper does something for me that I don't know how to do
    • the helper teaches me to do something
    • the helper reminds me that I want to do something
    • the helper pays attention to me while I do something.

  • Helping with thinking (similar help can apply to feelings)
    • the helper listens as I think aloud or as I express my thoughts in writing, drawing, etc. This helper seeks to be a "witness," but not to interact with the content of my thinking.
    • the helper interviews me actively about my thoughts, seeking to help me discover my own ideas.
    • the helper adds information or analysis to my thoughts, seeking to engage with my ideas, giving me the opportunity to test my thinking against someone else's thought processes or experience.

Training my helpers

I find that it's important for me to give my helpers clear instructions.

Most unsuccessful help can be traced to miscommunication, as when I'm hoping for someone to listen while I think, whereas my helper thinks I want his opinion.

Some helpers require a lot of training before they can give me the kind of help I want, especially when I need someone to change modes several times in the course of a session.

But almost anyone can be trained, if I'm persistent and calm.

Naturally, some helpers just seem to "click" with me, intuiting when to intervene and when to just "beam attention" at me.

Like good friends, good helpers are among life's treasures. Like good friendships, good helping relationships have to be constructed and maintained.


The Growth & Harvesting of Helpers

How do you find helpers? What are the benefits of a long-term helping relationship?

Courting a New Helper

By now, you may be wondering how to find some of these marvelous helpers. Good helpers are not only found, however; they're grown.

Start by asking someone to try one helping session.

For example, let's say you're looking for a weekly writing buddy. Call up someone you enjoy spending time with and say,

"I've been thinking I'd get my book written faster if I had someone to sit down and write with. Would you be willing to try one morning of working on our different projects across the table from each other?"
If the person says yes, try it. If, after the trial session, you realize it's not a good match for you, thank the person - but don't make another appointment.

On the other hand, if you loved working with this person, say,

"This was great for me. If you had your way, how often would we do this?"
If the person says, "Oh, maybe once a month," then you have one week a month taken care of!

If the person says, "Well, I liked it, but I don't really have that much writing to do," then ask what other things the person might need support with. I once had a buddy who quilted while I wrote. In the case of a barter buddy, you have even more leeway for creative courting. If you finally found an excellent editor but the editor is reluctant to meet again, you can say,

"What would it take for me to get your help on a regular basis?"
If the editor still demurs, ask what she/he has trouble getting to. Most people have at least one task that they can't imagine getting help with, whether it's doing the laundry or making investigative phone calls. If you don't mind doing that task, you have a perfect match!


If you agree to work with a helper on a regular basis, it may make sense to set a time to evaluate.

For example, you might say,

"Great! What if we work one day a month for the next four months, then check in about how it's going?"
At your fourth appointment, then, you can spend a few minutes talking about how it's gone so far, and make any needed changes in your arrangement.

At the very least, you can tell each other how helpful it has been to work together. Appreciation nourishes helping relationships as water nourishes plants!

Helpers for Fun and Profit

Good helping relationships require care and love, but can reap long-term rewards.

After a "trial period" and evaluation, keep noticing how you and your helper work together. Take time now and again to evaluate and celebrate. If your helper is making a difference in your life, let her know!

Keep your helping periods on-task, but give each other whatever support you need.

Earlier, I mentioned how my coaching buddy and I begin our sessions with an hour of breakfast and conversation as friends. During this period we often give each other spontaneous appreciations.

If, on a particular day, one of us is not "present," this time also helps us both to "show up." For us, our efficient work times are made possible by our relaxed conversations before-hand.

Don't waste time with a non-productive relationship - but don't be too quick to give up, either.

At one point I felt annoyed with one of my helpers for not giving me the kind of help that I gave her. But then I realized that she gave me a different, complimentary kind of help that I needed even more - because it corresponded to my weakness, not to my strength. Once I realized what she had to offer me, I could make better use of it.

Pleasant surprises

Over the years, some of my helping relationships have developed to unexpected levels. Jay O'Callahan and I have coached each other weekly since 1987. At this point, we've made (and learned from) most of the major mistakes we're likely to make with each other. We've become very skilled at knowing what kind of help the other is likely to need at any given moment. Our efficiency, once satisfactory, has grown to become awesome! Each session feels like a work of art in itself.

The writing buddy who works with me in the cafeteria has noted a different effect. When she needs to write but I can't be there, she goes to "our" cafeteria alone. Anywhere else, she would procrastinate, but there she can "feel" my presence. It's as though we've imbued the cafeteria with our intentions and our support for each other. By helping each other, we've created a set of dispositions we can each use independently.

As I've used helpers for more and more purposes, I've noticed other kinds of gains:

  • I don't feel as isolated as I once did.
  • More often, I assume that I'll succeed, that the world will give me what I need.
  • I'm more fearless about taking on challenges.
  • I'm less likely to dribble away my time on inconsequential activities.

Go for it!

There may be world shortages of many resources. But there is no shortage of people.

If you need land or uranium, there may be good reasons why you have to do without.

But if you need help, there is no good reason not to get it!

Copyright © Doug Lipman



Doug Lipman

152 Wenonah Road, Longmeadow, MA 01106 U.S.A.
Phone: (781) 837-1940
Alternate Phone (rings the same line): (413) 754-6728
Fax (toll-free): (888) 300-6665

This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©2003 Doug Lipman