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Giving, Taking, and Helping: How to Find the Perfect Balance

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How helpful is too helpful? I have a friend who was diagnosed with breast cancer recently, and she’s been besieged with advice and suggestions … that she hasn’t wanted at all.

How much giving is too much giving? I have a friend whose generosity to me unnerves me, because I know he’s struggling with credit card debt.

How much taking is too much taking? I have a friend whose “this is my right, I’m just going to claim it” attitude riles me up – I can feel my sense of unfairness burn and my jaw clench.

It’s hard to find the right balance, isn’t it?

Let’s dive in.

Giving: Adam Grant

One of my new favourite books is Grant’s Give and Take: A revolutionary approach to success. He sets things up by saying there are three types of people in the world, three different “reciprocity styles”: the Givers, the Takers and the Matchers. You can probably figure out the behaviours and style of the Givers and the Takers. In fact, you probably know people in your life you can label as one or the other. Think of the Matchers as “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” and operate on a principle of fairness.

Grant then asked, which of these three styles is most and least successful? Which gets you the prize most consistently? Studying across different ages and industries, he found that indeed there were winners and losers in this game. (What’s your guess, by the way?)

The least successful style? The Givers. Grant found that there was a style of behaviour that was in effect self-sacrificing. You give it all, you put their interests in front of your own … and they win and you lose. Givers are too caring, too trusting, too naive.


So what was the most successful style? Here’s the twist. It was again the Givers. Yes, Givers are at the bottom and the top of the success ladder. Because there’s a way to be a Giver that you might label “smart generosity”. It understands what can be given away and what can’t. It has an open heart and also boundaries, and it may put aside a smaller win to play a bigger game. This way collaborates wisely.

So Grant’s set us up to think: How do we be smart (and successful) Givers?

But what about taking?

(Bonus: here’s a great TED talk by Grant about communication, why questions often trump answers, and “the pratfall effect.”)

Taking: Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer has scaled the tower of public consciousness in three giant bounds: first with her hugely-$1.2m-successful Kickstarter project; then with the TED talk on the Art of Asking and most recently with her book of the same name.

In her book (and the talk too) she delves into the dynamics of asking for help, and why so many of us are so bad at it. (Yes, I’ll stick my hand up and ‘fess to that.) We rarely do it. And when we do ask for help we’re embarrassed, ashamed, aggressive, manipulative, obscure…

Palmer’s life has had a twin dynamic of being able to ask for help and being willing to be vulnerable to her fans. The book’s depth comes as she tracks the struggle she has in being vulnerable and asking for help from those who are closest to her, namely her husband Neil Gaiman. (Yes, the cool author Neil Gaiman.)

The connection I make is that being vulnerable is, paradoxically, a show of strength. Or at least, sometimes. (Did you watch the Adam Grant video above about the pratfall effect?)  Palmer knows that asking makes you vulnerable. Be vulnerable if you’re a smart Giver, not a self-sacrificing one. Be vulnerable if you’ve got your feet well-planted. For instance, I believe that having a cleft lip and palate and with it a slight speech disability actually makes me better as a speaker.

So if Palmer says “ask for help!” what do we know about being helpful?

(Bonus: here is a lovely interview between Amanda and one of my favourite people, Maria Popova from Brainpickings, about the art of asking.)

Helping: Edgar Schein

Adam Grant and Amanda Palmer are both hip young-ish things. Ed Schein? More a hip older thing. He’s a former professor at MIT, and has made his mark about career anchors, about understanding corporate culture and change management, and also about the art and science of helping.

In Helping: How to offer, give, and receive help Schein points to a profound insight. When you offer to help someone, you “one up” yourself and you “one down” them. And neuroscience tells us that when you lower someone’s rank, someone’s status, you create resistance and disengagement.

And you know this is true, because you’ve experienced it on both sides of the equation. When people have thrust their well-meaning help upon you, you’ve shut down and deflected it. And when you’ve done your best to offer assistance, strangely, weirdly, it’s often been cast aside.

So where does that leave us?

Where Giving, Taking and Helping Meet

Schein says that the secret to being helpful is to hold an attitude of humble inquiry: to stay curious and grounded as long as possible, and when (and if) your advice does come, it’s appropriate and welcomed.

I’m singing along in the Schein choir. I consider our Coaching Skills for Managers programs here at Box of Crayons to be fundamentally about helping build adult-to-adult relationships at work. And what do we mean by an adult to adult relationship? Someone (Peter Block I think) once defined it as “being willing to ask for what you want … knowing that the answer may be No.”

(That’s worth sitting with for a moment. It’s simple but it’s difficult.)

So here are the two questions that might serve you well.

What do you want?

(Don’t forget to tell them what you want as well.)

How can I help?

If you want to give generously, if you want to receive with an open heart, if you want to help wisely, these two questions will lay the foundation.

And you?

In the interplay of giving, taking and helping, where have you struggled? What’s been difficult for you?

And what have you learned? How do you now find the sweet spot, in those moments when you do?

Originally published at

About the Author

Michael Bungay Stanier is the Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work.

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