When a stranger reaches out and asks for help, what do we do?
I don’t mean what we’d like to do. I don’t mean what we think we should do. I mean, what do we actually do -- when it’s another hectic day, when it’s one email out of 100 that’ll come in that hour, when you don’t know this person, when it’s easy to hit delete and move on. What do we do?
Recently, I started an interesting debate about this question on LinkedIn. The subject of that debate was me. Some people thought I handled a situation like this well. Others called me elitist and heartless. I was left thinking that we, as entrepreneurs, need to better define what it means to “help” someone -- and more than ever, I believe saying “no” can be an acceptable form of help.
First, let me give you the context. Here’s my post from LinkedIn:
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I just got a brief email from a 25-year-old who says he's "really interested in making something" with his life. His ask of me: "If there is any ways you could help me out, I'm more than happy to help you out in any ways i can." I get emails like this from time to time.
I feel for the kid—but frankly, anyone who will devote lots of time based on a short, one-time email is probably not someone whose time you really want. So I replied: "You have a good idea here, in reaching out to people. But don’t do it transactionally. If you reach out simply asking people to help you, they won’t—they don’t have the time, and they’re not invested in your success. Instead, start by building relationships with people. Email them just to say you liked something they did. Then do it again a month later. Start to engage them in conversation. Engage them on social media. Let them get to know you. And then, at a later time, they’ll be willing to help."
I wish him luck. Hell, maybe he'll figure out how to build that relationship with me!
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I shared this as a way of passing along what I believe is valuable advice: Don’t be transactional; be a relationship-builder. Some LinkedIn respondents agreed. Others saw me as selfish. “People should help others find their way. It's called kindness,” one chided. “Instead of blasting this individual on social media to get yourself in the light, you should have taken the steps to build your relationship with him also,” another wrote.
The backlash took me by surprise. I’m still not sure what they’re proposing -- that every time I or anyone else gets an email from a stranger asking for help, we must drop what we’re doing and thoroughly help? That when someone fails to build a relationship with me or you, that we should always take it upon ourselves to build that relationship ourselves? I would love to live in a world where that happens, but the fact is, we do not live in that world. It’s an impossibility. We are all too busy. If I proactively helped everyone who ever asked me for help, I’d never have time to do my job. Nor, I’m sure, would you.
That’s why I replied the way I did. I wanted this young man to understand that emails like his won’t get him far. He needs to change his approach! He needs to build relationships! Now the next time he reaches out to someone, he can increase his chances of finding the help that he needs. In effect, I helped him by explaining the reason I said no. And I want to now make a full-throated endorsement: There is tremendous value in explaining a no. We can all help others by saying no, so long as we follow it up with: “Here’s why…”
I can think of many times someone helped me by saying no. Bosses rejected ideas of mine, but told me why. Employers turned me down for jobs, and told me why. I remember being 22 years old, with dreams of writing for the New Yorker. I tracked down a New Yorker writer and asked him to put me in touch with one of his editors -- a purely transactional ask. Instead of doing that, he asked if he could first see the pitch I was going to send. I shared it with him. He explained that the story wasn’t right for the magazine -- that, frankly, an editor wouldn’t take me seriously if I sent it in -- and that he wasn’t going to pass it along. That was an immensely helpful no! Had he simply given me what I wanted, the New Yorkereditor would have dismissed my pitch and perhaps never looked at another pitch I wrote again.
I am grateful for that no. I am grateful for so many noes.
Would you like to say yes to someone instead? That’s wonderful. Please do! Be kind, and be supportive, and give whatever care and attention and time that you can. I do it whenever I can, too. (Truly, I do!) But we will also all benefit by thinking of “no, because” as a form of help. Don’t fear telling someone “no.” Don’t feel bad about it. Don’t think you’re harming them, or being elitist, or selfish, or heartless. If you tell someone “no” and explain why, you’re helping them course-correct for the next time. It’s that simple.
Here, by contrast, is what happens if the scolds on LinkedIn have their way: We will try to help who we can, but we will not be able to help everyone. The task will become overwhelming. And because we will be afraid to say “no” -- because we will have been conditioned to think “no” is unkind -- we will instead do something truly bad: We will say nothing. We will delete that person’s email without responding. We give no feedback. We give no insight. We will let that person make the same mistake over and over and over again. That is the cruelest of all. I would much rather say no, and explain why.
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This article originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com. Minor edits have been done by the Entrepreneur.com.ph editors