Throwback Post: Wise vs. Unwise Helping

I first posted this three years ago, after a busy day walking around northwest DC. It contrasts wise and unwise approaches to helping a blind person cross the street. As you read, note how the first (wise) offer of help was framed as a question, while the second (unwise) was framed as a statement. Also note how the wise helper in the first scenario was positive and responsive to me, while the second “helper” was not. While I am sure both individuals had great intentions, a few critical differences in execution can transform an interaction from helpful to confusing and possibly harmful.

Today I would like to compare and contrast ways to help me cross the street. I encountered both of these yesterday.


Woman (As I approached intersection): The light is green, do you want any help crossing?

Me (while pausing and listening to confirm that parallel traffic is moving beside me) Is there enough time to get across?

Woman: Yes, there are 26 seconds left on the walk sign.

Me (stepping across beside woman) Cool, thank you so much!

*Not helpful*

Man (as I round corner and begin searching for crosswalk with my cane) It’s this way!

Me: I ignore man and continue searching for crosswalk, aware that man has no idea which direction I want to cross, and if I obey him, I could very well end up crossing south instead of west. I know this from experience.

Man (as I backtrack slightly and find crosswalk) No no.

*I continue to ignore man, confirm I am in the correct crosswalk, and cross when the light changes.*

**Analysis: Note that in the first example, the woman asked if I needed help and allowed me to request useful information (how much time is on the walk sign). She also waited long enough for me to process what I was hearing so I could make my own decision about it being safe to cross. In the second example, the man didn’t ask what kind of help I wanted or needed, and his rebuking “it’s this way” didn’t make much sense to me because it was given out of context. It also distracted me from getting the information I needed to make my own decision about where to line up for the crossing.

**Take-away: Offering help or information is great, but it’s best to ask first if the person wants help or information. This allows the person to request help or information that is appropriate in the particular instance. Offering good assistance is about starting a conversation, a dialogue, rather than a one-sided interjection.

One thought on “Throwback Post: Wise vs. Unwise Helping

  1. Excellent points and much appreciated. Approach matters when asking if one would like assistance. A respectful offer is fine, while a sideways shout from someone who has no idea where you are headed is not.

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