One of the biggest sources of work-related stress has little to do with the usual culprits, like email overload or the modern workplace's myriad distractions. It comes from the way we ask each other for help—or rather, from the fact that we often don't ask the right way, or even at all.
Many of us want to give our colleagues a hand but wind up contributing to their stress rather than relieving it, and vice versa. Instead of being helpful, we sometimes come up short or even make things worse. And in those cases, it's less likely a colleague seeks out our help another time.
As Harvard Business School professors David A. Garvin and Joshua D. Margolis point out in the Harvard Business Review, "Advice seekers and givers must clear significant hurdles, such as a deeply ingrained tendency to prefer their own opinions, irrespective of their merit, and the fact that careful listening is hard, time-consuming work."
Many of us, especially if we're feeling overworked and worn down anyway, seldom have the time or attentional bandwidth for that. So it's no surprise, Garvin and Margolis write, that "the process can derail in many ways, and getting it wrong can have damaging consequences—misunderstanding and frustration, decision gridlock, subpar solutions, frayed relationships, and thwarted personal development—with substantial costs to individuals and their organizations."
Stress, in other words, isn't just about your tight deadlines or your working habits. It's an interpersonal issue, and it hinges on how we communicate (or don't) when we're trying to help each other at work. Here are four of the most common scenarios that lead to stressful, failed efforts at offering assistance, and how to avoid them.
If your coworker confides in you that they're having a problem, your natural assumption might be that they're asking for your help with it. But people often just want someone they trust to listen, not necessarily help them sort things out. The simple act of vocalizing a problem can help us solve it on our own.
If you aren't sure whether someone's asking for your advice or just wants a listening ear, go ahead and ask: "Are you looking for ideas, or did you need a sounding board for this issue?"
It’s normal to see other people’s problems as simple compared with our own. And sometimes it takes a deliberate effort to withhold giving advice on something that seems straightforward to you, but is probably more complex than you think. As Garvin and Margolis caution, "Resist the urge to provide immediate feedback . . . [because] jumping to conclusions or recommendations typically signals a flawed or incomplete diagnosis."
In order to grasp the whole issue before offering your input, ask two kinds of questions: open-ended and specific. This approach has three advantages: It helps you to understand the problem thoroughly; your colleague will recognize that you want to understand and commiserate; and, as they try to answer your questions, it may shift the way they think or feel about the issue themselves.
In our own research, we've found that work-related stress is just a symptom of fear and uncertainty. This or that productivity hack may temporarily treat those symptoms, but in order to tackle the underlying emotions that cause them, we need to be able to offer each other meaningful reassurance and support.
Have you ever been in an argument where the other person keeps repeating the same words over and over? That's a pretty good sign that you haven’t convinced them you understand and respect their point of view. Negotiation expert Thomas R. Colosi describes that predicament this way:
The purpose of any negotiation is to create doubt in the mind of the other person about the validity of their position. No one will let you create doubt unless they trust you. And no one will trust you until they are sure you understand and respect their point of view.
When we rush to share what we believe is true, the other person usually resists, even if they suspect we may be right. So avoid opening questions with, "Don’t you think that . . . ?" or those that judge, like, "Why are you doing that?" These typically increase your coworker's uncertainty (fear) and make them more defensive (stressed).
Instead, ask questions that request more information about their perspective, rather than force them to defend it: "Help me understand your strategy when you . . . ?" or "What advantages do you see in . . . ?"
Sometimes the best way to help someone is by pointing out ineffective behaviors or poor decision-making tactics. But no matter how good your intentions, or how skillfully you offer it, criticism tends to increase fear and cause defensive reactions. In these cases, ask for permission to offer help: "I’ve noticed something that might be of concern to you. Would you like me to share my take?"
It’s a lot harder for your stressed-out coworker to feel resistant after they've accepted your invitation. You can also include some meaningful praise alongside your criticism. This is especially true for managers. If you already have a habit of acknowledging a team member's good work, then you'll have a strong foundation for offering critical feedback that's more helpful than stress-inducing.
Sometimes it's one thing to offer help and another to actually be helpful. Knowing how that gap forms, though, is the first step towards closing it.
Robert Maurer, PhD, and Michelle Gifford, MA, are coauthors of Mastering Fear: Harness Emotion to Achieve Excellence in Health, Work, and Relationships (Career Press). Maurer is the founder of Science of Excellence and a faculty member at UCLA and the University of Washington School of Medicine. Gifford is a clinical speech pathologist and consultant-educator for families and teams, developing programs of excellence on behalf of children with special needs.