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posted: 1/2/2014 8:47 AM

Tips for knowing when to get involved

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A friend of mine asked this question, and it's a good one: "How do we know when our attempts to help other people actually do more harm than good?"

We begin with the best of intentions. But just as we're getting started, or right in the middle, or as soon as we've finished, or perhaps even months or years later, we realize we never should have gotten involved at all. The person or persons we were trying to help would have been a lot better off if we just hadn't gotten involved. And we would have been better off, too.

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There ought to be some basic rule we could use to help us in such situations. "Get involved if ..., but don't get involved when ...," or something like that.

If there is such a rule, I never heard it. But there are at least some questions we can ask to make our decision a bit clearer.

1. Why do we want to get involved? Is it that we care about the person(s) involved? Do we feel responsible for the problem? Are we trying to make up for a past failure? Are we looking for gratitude? Our motives are probably mixed, but let's at least think about them.

2. What is the problem? Let's try to state clearly and simply what we are worried about: our son is failing eighth-grade math, or our wife seems tired and disillusioned. And we sometimes need to dig deeper: does our son have a developing learning problem, or is there a problem with our marriage?

3. Can the person(s) involved handle it on their own? Our sister has always been responsible and motivated. She may be out of work, but she is already well on her way to getting another job.

4. How dangerous is the problem? Our teenager flunked a history exam. But she is only a sophomore and has time to get back on track. One failed test is not necessarily a crisis.

5. What can the person(s) involved learn from handling this problem, and is it important that it be learned? A sexually precocious 12-year-old may learn a lot by being sexually active, but they are not things we want her to learn just yet. We need to get involved.

6. What power do we really have? Our brother's adult son is in a bad marriage. He won't listen to anyone. We're tempted to go over and talk to him and his wife, even though we haven't been invited.

7. Who, then, really needs to work on this problem? This is the tough one. It comes down to a judgment call. If we think through the above questions we will probably have a better chance of making the right choice, but there are no guarantees.

There are probably additional questions we might ask, but I think the seven I've listed are a fairly good start. And often in the time it takes to really think them through we will find that the problem has been taken care of by the people involved anyway.

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