The Failure Mode of Helpful

Failure mode (FM) refers to the way in which something might break down and includes potential errors that may occur, especially errors that may affect the customer. — FMEA

Let’s say a friend is in need of something.  Perhaps they have a problem that has been perplexing them for a time or they just found out they are about to lose their job or they just broke up with their SigOther.   And you decide to try to be Helpful about it, because you are a helpful person, and that’s how you roll.

Couple of things here:

  1. The perception of Helpful from the POV of other people is highly subject to external circumstances, many of which you have no control or even influence on,  and probably aren’t even aware of.
  2. The Failure Mode of Helpful is Annoying.

I should clarify that when I say the Failure Mode of Helpful is annoying, I’m speaking of the default mode.  In other words, if you fail to be helpful and  do nothing else, the default state is annoying.  It is quite possible that you could do much, much more harm.

Let’s pretend for a minute that your dog was hit by a car and died.  NOTHING in the world is going to make you feel better at that particular moment except perhaps a friend who shows up with a Delorean and can take you back far enough in the past to prevent Fido from being outside that horrible day.

However, in lieu of a friend with a time traveling vehicle, let’s pretend instead that two friends show up to offer their support.  Between the following two choices, which of these will offer you a modicum of comfort:

  • Friend1 who says something to the effect of I’m sorry for your loss, I know how much Fido meant to you.
  • Friend2 who says yeah same thing happened to me last year.

That is not a situation in which you want to risk the Failure Mode of Helpful and my guess is most sensible people will unfriend Friend2 at the first opportunity.

This is not to say that your helpfulness should not eventually come out at the appropriate time.  That time is usually well after they have given you the elevator pitch about their quandary AND you have suppressed the urge to offer whatever solution you came up with 30 seconds after hearing about the predicament they’ve likely been struggling with for x weeks.  You also want to avoid giving in to terrible cliches or offering help they really cannot use and/or absolutely do not need.

TL/DR:  Just because you intended to be helpful doesn’t mean you will be received as helpful for all sorts of reasons.

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