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your doing nothing is not helping

November 23, 2010

The last two posts have prompted a number a responses about what it means to be supportive and the apparently risky act of offering assistance. A conversation I had yesterday has prompted me to raise the alternate view – that doing nothing is not helping.

The fear of getting involved, the fear of being rejected by or accidentally insulting the person you might otherwise offer to help, seems to make people think twice about saying or doing something.

You see two people in a heated discussion in the street and you look the other way – it is best not to get involved. One of them is clearly much bigger than the other – but it is best not to get involved.

In the workplace time pressures apparently create friction between colleagues – but it is best not to get involved. A person behaves in a particular way that makes us feel unsettled – it is best not to say anything.

Choices are made in regards to an important project that don’t sit comfortably with you – it could be a CLM (career limiting move) to say too much so we stay quiet. The Government announces a policy decision that treats a particular group unfairly – but I am just one voice who cannot change anything so I will stay quiet.

Butterflies on a pin board

Avoiding a situation that puts us in conflict with someone else is, I think, a natural reaction for many people. It is the flight part of the fight-or-flight response. While it might keep us safe in the short term, like the proverbial butterfly in the Amazon, the effect of not resolving the small conflicts in our lives ripples out through space and builds over time until we are confronted with conflicts on a much larger scale – often beyond our skills and capacities to deal with.

Your (and my) doing nothing doesn’t seem to me to be helping.

What can you do today to help to resolve the small tensions that arise throughout every day of our lives? Today? If you don’t think you have the skills to do so, then what can you do today to increase your skills so that you can do something that helps?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 23, 2010 6:56 am

    I condone providing help when it is sensible. This can be a ‘wicked problem’ and I don’t think there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach. It is very much based on common sense and judgment.

    There are many circumstances where people are advised not to get involved, but instead to be attentive witnesses. Banks and Service Stations all have a small colour coded sticker on the exits centred about the 180cm mark. I can’t recall the colour or sequences, but is something like yellow white and blue. It is about 20 cms long and about 3 or 4 cms wide. This is provided at the advice of Police and security experts so that witnesses/victims can have a visual reference to gauge the height estimate of the offender as they leave the scene. This is to help their account be as accurate as possible, not everything is captured on close circuit TV even though the technology has vastly improved over recent years. During the commission of such crimes people are strongly advised not to get involved and to be compliant as there is a serious risk of injury.

    • November 23, 2010 7:10 am

      No argument there Paul except to say that the decision to be an “attentive witness” is an active one and one that I fear many people would not make. It is the “I just saw a collision on the road … but I wont stop to offer to be a witness – somebody else is probably doing that” line of thought that leaves people without the support they might need that concerns me. I suppose that is what the security cameras are trying to replace in way – the disapproving glare of the neighbour across the road that causes you to admit it was your pushbike that scratched the paintwork. Sometimes just knowing someone is watching is enough.

  2. little bro permalink
    November 23, 2010 10:04 am

    I think there are a couple of aspects to your post… one is the risk assessment that we all perform when we see a situation that makes us uncomfortable – do we help or don’t we? If we help, what’s the risk to me personally (either physically from the offender, or maybe the verbal offence received if the help isn’t wanted)? If I don’t help, what’s the risk to the other person? What happens if one out-ways the other and that makes me really uncomfortable?

    The second aspect is around the quantity and ‘style’ of help – the cameras and height charts are nice examples of a risk based approach for both the property owners and the potential offenders. In this case, a sound way to help is indeed as an “attentive witness” – other situations a loud shout to draw attention might suffice. Meets my needs in a risk based approach.

    An interesting addition to this discussion is the fact that Police have an issue with the number of illegitimate emergency calls – why don’t people understand the importance of this number for providing assistance to those in need. Now we have (in Queensland, Australia anyway) a number to call for non-urgent property crime and non-urgent incidents. Being optimistic (and deliberately leaving prank calls out of it) maybe too many people are using triple-0 to try and provide assistance?

    Now I have to add that criteria into my personal risk assessment as well…

    • November 23, 2010 9:30 pm

      A risk based approach certainly resonates with the work I do with corporate clients. There it is all about “managing risk” but it is focused on minimizing the potential downside for me while maximizing the actual upside – for me.

      What happens if one out-weighs the other? I think that is the question at the core of what makes me uncomfortable about my responses of late.

      Some thoughts spring to mind in response but they are only part formed… thanks for adding another perspective.

  3. December 1, 2010 2:29 pm


    Initially I responded to this blog in an email to Paul and he has asked me to post it. I am at work and have no time to edit it, I dumping it in “as is”.

    Hi Paul,

    I read some of your blog the other day. The last one brought to mind a couple of things.

    Firstly, I witnessed some road rage a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know what precipitated the incident. I was returning home after teaching my class on a Saturday and there were two cars, a small hatch and a four wheel drive, parked one behind the other at a set of traffic light on Blunder road. A young Asian guy in expensive looking clothes was leaning on the window of the four wheel drive. At first I thought they were just chatting. I thought this was weird because the lights were turning green. Then as I was passing in the outside lane, this guy starts jabbing his finger on the window and screaming. He then returns to his car, but on the way starts bashing in the rear mud guard with a tire iron he was carrying. I had enough time to get his number plate and I was past them. The four wheel drive drove off and the hatch did too, turning down another street. In my rear view mirror I saw that when the hatch had disappeared the four wheel drive pulled over to the side of the road. I was well ahead of them by then and since I was expected home I kept driving. Which in hindsight seems like a complete cop out. I should have turned around and offered some assistance. Instead I went home and called the non-urgent crime number, where I spent about 30 minutes making a statement. Some of that was fairly comical, such as the guy answering the phone asking me to describe the incident and then asking me if I should make a statement, to which responded “It’s your show, you tell me”. In the end nothing came of it. The owners of the four wheel drive did not make a complaint and without the owner the hatch admitting anything the police could not pursue it.

    Secondly, the discussion of avoiding confrontation caught my eye. Earlier this year I listened to a senior instructor talking about Aikido and the importance of avoiding confrontation. I think he was trying to make a point about not unnecessarily placing yourself in danger by lacking awareness of a situation. But I thought it was phrased poorly. Aikido is about removing conflict, not avoiding confrontation. Confrontation does not necessarily have to lead to conflict and it can be an important part of problem resolution. I was really bothered by the statement and on a number of occasions this year I’ve made a point of trying to explain my perception of the difference. In fact the teachings of Tohei Sensei tell us to bravely face life challenges. To my mind shying away from confrontation, rather then working to remove conflict is in effect hiding from life’s challenges rather then bravely facing them.

    Of course Aikido’s techniques don’t offer us too much that we can directly apply to a non-violent confrontation, but the mindset can. It was thinking along these lines that led me to search for, and eventually find, guidance on how to handle verbal confrontations in a manner consistent with Aikido’s philosophies. What I found was a book called “The gentle art of verbal self defence”. I can’t remember the author’s name, and I have no idea if she has studied Aikido, but advice in the book provides a system for removing conflict from verbal confrontations. To my mind this fills a gap in our training between, “Extend ki and attempt to talk the attacker down”, and, “when that fails, apply this technique”.

    See you next year.



    • December 1, 2010 4:37 pm

      Thanks Nathan. Avoiding conflict doesn’t resolve it – whether the conflict is internal or external. I like Tohei Sensei’s approach of bravely facing life’s challenges.

      I am going to add that book to my reading list – The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work
      by Suzette Hagen Elgin – the gap you identify between the attempt to talk and a physical technique is a real one and I know it is an uncomfortable place that many people find themselves in at their workplace.

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