How to Be a Natural Helper

You don’t need a professional degree to make a positive impact

Posted Aug 03, 2015

My guest blogger today is Zach Blount from the Life Paths Research Program.

If you’re like me, you often find yourself wondering how you can best help people who are going through tough times. But, the desire to be helpful is often outweighed by doubts and thoughts of, “I want to help, but I’m not sure how.” There are easy ways to make a positive impact on the lives of people around you.  Being a natural helper takes hardly any experience - only an attentive ear and a kind heart.

The Life Paths Research Program asked nearly 200 people to share high and low points of their lives. We found a few patterns in the stories they told: many people told of others reaching out to help them during challenging times. Participants commonly mentioned several types of adversity, including the death of someone they knew (12.2%), personal health problems (10.5%), financial problems (9.3%), job-related and/or academic challenges (8.1%), family adversity, such as the divorce of one’s parents (8.1%), and personal substance abuse (7.6%).

We found that 71.5% of people said that when they were faced with these and other adversities, they received help from another person. If you do not have a professional healthcare-related license, you may be thinking that you would be incapable of assisting with these problems. Surely the majority of these complicated and heavy issues were being addressed by professionals and community leaders.  

Nope.

People most often received help from:

Family members (41.1%)
Friends and peers (19.2%)

Only 8.7% of people claimed that they were helped by a therapist or other professional, 5.2% by a mentor, pastor, or coach, and 4.1% by school personnel.

Most importantly, 52.3% of people said that the help they received came in the form of friendly conversations, guidance, and demonstrations of loyalty and commitment. So, when people share personal experiences with friends and family, they often find themselves better equipped to cope with the difficult situation at hand. While professional helpers, such as doctors and therapists, can be very helpful, people report positive results even if the listener does not hold a professional degree or job title. For example, when one person was asked to describe the lowest point in her life, she responded with this comment:

            “[The lowest point] as far as being the saddest…was when my…daughter died. …When she died…the grief was so bad that…I was having to remind myself to breathe because I thought that I could easily just vanish at that moment. …But how I coped was I had so many other wonderful people in my life…. …It’s kind of like the wind beneath your wings,…I mean I felt like…they were breathing for me at that moment and…they kept me going. …Sometimes I thought my heart’s beating because I’ve got all these other people and so that’s really how I coped is just really relying…and remembering…how grateful and thankful I was for everybody else that I had and all the love and the support from not only our family, but from friends and people I didn’t even know.”

Dr. Hamby has told me, “The way the field of psychology often tells people to handle adversity is not always how we ourselves would handle such situations.”  In other words, though some instances may require professional attention, a meaningful conversation with a friend or family member may be exactly what someone needs to jumpstart the healing process. So, when someone comes to you for help with their personal challenges, don’t write yourself off as inexperienced or as unable to help. Instead, be an impactful, natural helper and simply listen to their story; it’s a meaningful way to show your loyalty and support that may ultimately help them overcome the adversity they face.

Learn more about the Life Paths Research Program at http://lifepathsresearch.org (link is external). This study was conducted by Sherry Hamby, Victoria Banyard, and John Grych and the interviews described here were coded by Life Paths interns Elise Anderson, Zach Blount, Emily Christner, and Jemi Senoga.

This project was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.