Back to Back Issues Page
The Boundary Hunter, Issue #002 -- When people reject the help they ask for
May 01, 2008

Crossing Boundaries by Helping
The Help Rejecting Person

Boundaries are easy to cross inappropriately for the minister who must be of service to others. As the saying goes...the devil is in the details.

Here's a common scenario...A minister trying to help a help-rejecting helpless person.

A person seeks the minister's help or advice. The minister listens attentively...usually following every phrase and becoming absorbed in the content...which may be sad...dramatic...heart-rending...or otherwise troubled. People turn to their favorite minister at such times.

Ministers vary in how long they can remain silent. Some feel they have to say something fairly quickly to let the person know they are listening...others wait longer to get more of the big picture.

It doesn't matter what your style is...eventually the person will ask you for advice about what they should do. They may just fall silent and wait for you to offer something...they may ask what they should do...they may ask what you would do in their place.

No matter how they ask...they will make sure that you understand you are being asked to help. That is often an invitation to cross boundaries inappropriately and take charge of the person's life.

At that point you may feel stuck or you may have something that would be useful to you presumed...they wanted to solve their problem.

The point here is that they will slam dunk the ball into your court. And having a minister's good will want to offer them something useful...and you most likely will do just that.

And just as likely...the person will give you an immediate reason why your suggestion or your advice won't work. Often they will say they already tried that and it didn't work. Some will give you a complete list of reasons why you're wide of the mark.

Then with the minister's stubborn will to be helpful...another suggestion will be offered. And just as quickly it will be turned down for any number of ready reasons. And your helpless person rushes to the net to meet your next shot.

Usually after your two best shots are back will begin to feel frustrated and just as helpless as the person you are trying to help. Now you both have the same problem!

What happened here?

Well...the first thing that happened was a presumption...on your part.

You presumed that the person actually had a problem that they wanted to solve in some way. And you crossed boundaries psychologically by thinking you had to solve it.

Second thing that happened was that you got absorbed in the problem by listening so closely to the content. This is how the problem became yours to solve. That's a boundary problem...when you take on some aspect of the person's life. might ask...shouldn't I pay close attention to a person who comes to me for help?

Indeed you should...but you need to pay equally close attention to the context the person creates as they speak to you.

This context includes

  • the tone of the person's voice...
  • the expression on their face...
  • how they sit...
  • how they cry if the do cry...

These are the details where the devil hides.

Listening requires not only what you are hearing...the problem...but how it is being described.

For example, a woman visits you and after quietly telling you about how her husband does not love her anymore...a tear begins to roll down her left cheek.

Up until that point you undoubtedly presumed that she is sad. And the tear confirms your presumption. And you get up to take her a box of tissues and say comforting things to her (that is...things you think are comforting).

But the question you must ask yourself is...exactly how much sadness can be contained in one tear? That's paying attention to the context...not just the content.

Next time someone comes to you for help of any kind...listen with divided attention. Hear what they are saying...but look and hear for what is going on when they are telling you their problem.

That way you the very least...stay somewhat objective and not cross boundaries by taking on or otherwise becoming absorbed in the person's issue.

If you have difficulty dealing with some people...of if you have a success story you can go from this boundaries newsletter and send it along . (If you cannot click on the link just copy and paste

into your browser). We may publish your inquiry...or your success story...(with appropriate safeguards to confidentiality) help others who may have the same or a similar problem.

In future issues...I'll follow up on this theme of dealing with boundaries and difficult people. Like the person who talks non-stop as if you weren't even there!

Back to Back Issues Page