It is important to remember that every job, every career, involves some aspect of customer service. In some cases we might be supporting our outside customers while, in others, we are supporting our fellow, in-house, coworkers. Whatever the reason, though, it is often part of our job to help others do theirs. As someone who has made a career out of customer service, I would like to warn you about a frustrating situation that can occur — people who “need” your help but don’t really “want” it. I know that can sound very odd, but I think you will recognize these people in your life and work when I describe them and their behavior. These people can make your work very difficult if you don’t understand how to recognize and deal with them.
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I can almost guarantee you have run into people who don’t want your help if you have worked for others for even a short time. They are usually pretty vocal about their displeasure or trouble with something and this makes them easy to spot. They are different, of course, from most others, though, in that any advice or support you offer is almost universally refused. They will quickly have a reason to reject, dismiss or refuse your advice. “That won’t work because of… I can’t do that because… That doesn’t apply to me. My situation is totally different.” If you continue to try and offer alternatives, the person will often move from dismissing your ideas to outright anger, finally turning away in a huff and proclaiming, “You just don’t understand!” Sound familiar?
That fact is, these people don’t want help, advice or ideas. They simply want some way to vent about their problems. Now, that isn’t all bad, as we can all use a good listener in our lives for those times when we just need to get something off our chest, but this is an entirely different role from the one we normally play. When someone asks us something, or comes to us with a problem, out natural behavior is to offer help and suggests to ease their burden. These people don’t want that. They only want to be heard. Unfortunately, this also often means that they can be seen as complainers who only want to gripe about something instead of making the changes that are required to solve the problem. Trying to help someone in this situation becomes an exercise in futility. It wears you out and often leads the other person to dislike you. Recognize this behavior and distance yourself from it before it damages your work and career.
An odd sidelight to this behavior can be a sense of resentment from those who need your help, but don’t really want it. As a computer support consultant, I have seen this quite often in the past. Customers can resent that they need your assistance at all, being unable to solve their issues on their own. They come to see you as a barely necessary evil and will often place the blame for computer failures on your shoulders instead of blaming the failing software or their own lack of knowledge about how to use the computer. Granted, computer support workers can often make people feel stupid, often without really meaning to, but resentment at needing help — and therefore at you — can often be an underlying issue.
So, how do you deal with such behavior, once you recognize it? First, stop offering ideas, advice and opinions. Listen, nod politely, but don’t give them any more opportunities to create excuses for themselves and their behaviors. Recognize that there is little you can do unless the person themselves really wants to change. Engaging with them only makes them more determined to prove their point that there is no solution. It also makes you a target for their anger and resentment. There is no way you will come out of the conversation in a positive light if you continue. Walk away as soon as you can, secure in the knowledge of how to deal with this person in the future.
Finally, when possible, avoid these people and their behavior. In some cases, this can be difficult if they are a close co-worker or important client, but for sheer self-preservation of your own work and career, you need to limit your exposure to them. In the case of a freelance client, you may need to “fire” them instead of letting them take your time and energy to no good purpose. Dealing with many of these people can sap your energy and drive to work for others, damaging your overall success. Learn to recognize quickly when you are in a futile situation where someone might “need” your help, but not really “want” it and react accordingly. Your state of mind, your own happiness and your career will all benefit.