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How to help people

As I continue building my personal productivity practice, one of the biggest shifts in my thinking is around networking [1]. I've moved from the common "palm down" perspective [2] to the "palm up" variety, in which I work to learn what people care about, and think about afterwards how I can be of service, i.e., how I can help them. I'm reminded of this idea, from my self help formulary:

Life = The people you meet + What you create together

What's hit me recently is that I needed to make changes in the way I interact with people in order to better help them. The question is, how do we create an environment that fosters this kind of giving?

Here's a straightforward process that's helped me:

1. When meeting someone, come with an attitude of genuine curiosity.

Think of yourself as a detective. Your job is to listen and ask good questions about what she cares about, loves, is challenged by, and is excited about. Learning to do this may take some work (it did for me) because many of us want to talk about ourselves, show how smart we are, and feel like we're contributing to the conversation. Another risk is, giving unsolicited advice [3].

It helps to have rapport-establishing skills, and I've found Nicholas Boothman's How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less very helpful - see my review here. You might also enjoy Questions that Work.

This leads to a test:

After meeting someone, do you now know enough to spot ways to help him?

(Note: I recommend against the "Is there any way I can help you?" finish to a conversation. It sounds contrived to me, and might really be sending the message "Look how willing I am to help you." Often the answer is "hmmm." Much better to use my approach. Arguments to the contrary are welcome.)

Remember, when meeting with someone the only things you should be asking about are ones dedicated to providing value. Avoid the instinct to focus on the short-term and your benefit; it's about relationship-building and long term connections.

2. Maintain a steady, reliable, and valuable atom/bitstream

Now that you know what's potentially valuable to people in your network, you have to find corresponding artifacts. You'll want to select sources that provide this potential. These will be in the form of articles (HBR has some great ones), books (reading-related posts here), blogs (learn how to read them quickly here), and your experiences working, learning, and living.

Because these sources are often digital, you'll need an effective way of managing them. I like Mark Hurst's [4] concise little book Bit Literacy. Mark has a lot to say about the topic - highly recommended. For example, one idea is to create a media diet portfolio with two main components: The Lineup and Tryouts. The lineup contains the sources you are most likely to stick with. He breaks them down further into three types: stars (consistently valuable), scans (give some relevant information via a quick read), and targets (special-purpose sources). Tryouts are sources you're thinking of adding to your diet. Mark says to be discerning, intentional, and remember you have to limit the total.

This step's corresponding test:

Is my media diet consistently valuable to me and my network?

Ask this regularly, and prune/adjust as needed.

3. When you come across something of potential value, share it

This is self explanatory, but will depend on your having a free enough mind [5] to put together mentally the two parts.

That said, here are a few tips:

  • Instead of emailing, print and send information with a note. It's personal, fun, and after all - who gets excited about receiving an email? "Oh boy - I got an email from Matt! What a unique and memorable way to communicate." :-)
  • Point out why you thought she'd be interested.
  • Provide contact information. After all, starting a conversation around the topics is golden.
  • Send thick packages - it's more memorable. Plus, what fun to surprise and delight people. My favorites items Super Spy Night Pens and NASA stickers (it helps to have cool clients).
  • Consider giving books. I am surprised and humbled when I receive a book from my network, and I now don't think twice about shipping one when I see the opportunity. (Side note: Joining Amazon Prime has helped with this.) You might want to check out Tim Sanders' post Prescribe a book to a bizmate.

Unsurprisingly (at least to you, maybe) I've found doing this whole process to very satisfying. I've never been good at giving, and these ideas have helped me a lot. (This also explains why I've had trouble buying gifts in the past - the most meaningful ones are based on knowing the giftee.) Interestingly, I now find myself feeling rather disappointed when I can't help someone.

Oops - there's the doorbell, so I need to go. It's our piano tuner. For the past two weeks my wife's been grousing about how out of tune her instrument is, and how frustrating a few sticky keys. Can't wait to see her face next time she plays!


Reader Comments (13)

Awesome. I am eagerly awaiting that interview. "Bit Literacy" has been on my list of candidates since Nov, and I am going to have to move it up in the queue.

Glad to hear it, Stephen. I was fun, and is making me think (always good).

Thanks for reading!

January 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Nice post! I've taken to the book sending. Gets expensive though even with Amazon Prime!

January 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Steig

Hey, Joseph - quite true. An unspoken question is who do we choose to help? Yes we'd like to help everyone, but we also have to make a living and spend carefully our energy (and money!)

Thanks for reading.

January 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Here's a tip about book-giving: sign up on PaperbackSwap.com and you'll have plenty of books to give away! You post books to swap and earn credits that enable you to receive books from other members - not just paperbacks, by the way, and not just books, either!

I haven't given books as gifts to colleagues before, but putting this idea together with my PaperbackSwap membership sounds like the perfect solution!

I completely agree about making networking all about value for the other person. I've also blogged about it a few times before; [ here | http://coachlisab.blogspot.com/2007/07/my-three-rules-of-networking.html ] are [ two | http://coachlisab.blogspot.com/2007/09/what-not-to-do-when-networking.html ] of my posts.

January 20, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Braithwaite

Hey, Lisa - thanks for the pointer to [ PaperBackSwap | http://www.paperbackswap.com/index.php ] - good idea if you don't want to keep your books around after reading them.

And great articles - recommended. A quick summary for other readers:

[ My three rules of networking | http://coachlisab.blogspot.com/2007/07/my-three-rules-of-networking.html ]:

1. Act like you're the host.
2. Focus on the other person.
3. The rule of being me - act the part

[ What not to do when networking | http://coachlisab.blogspot.com/2007/09/what-not-to-do-when-networking.html ]:

1. Look around for someone better to talk to
2. Talk incessantly about yourself and your business without inquiring about others
3. Cling to people you know and not let newcomers into your group

FYI You can find my networking-related articles.

January 22, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Nice Blog... I read a couple of your posts and will come back for more

January 22, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnil

Thanks, Anil. Good to have you here.

January 22, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Giving books is a great idea. I've often had a clearout and offered books I've read to friends and colleagues, but I'm going to try just picking someone to send them to instead.

Thanks for the idea.

February 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAdrian McEwen

Glad you liked it, Adrian McEwen. Thanks for reading.

February 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell
Thanks for the knowledge. It's quite difficult for the average person to be able to help others genuinely without expecting anything in return.
Nice posts, by the way. I think a lot of your readers find it very useful.
April 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Liongosari
@Andrew Quite right! Over the four years I worked to change careers and become self-employed, I found that a somewhat mercenary attitude crept up on me, and I didn't like it. Thanks for writing.
April 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell
Thanks for the sharing Matthew. :)

It's great to be able to help other people when they're in need of our help. Feels great and happy that we could help other people, and especially their smile and the word thank you. :)
September 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJJ Wong

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