Hands-On and Hands-Off Relationships by Shelley Robinson


“Love is not patronizing and charity isn’t about pity, it is about love. Charity and love are the same — with charity you give love, so don’t just give money but reach out your hand instead.” Mother Teresa

Helping Hands Where Not Requested:  I have been considering this idea of being helpful.  The Bible speaks of the value of doing good deeds for others:  “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay” (Matthew, 10:8).  The assumption in reading this scripture is that these people are not only needing help, but they want it.   However, what about the people close to us, like our children, parents or significant others, who do not ask for, nor sense that they need help; and don’t want to be offered it, especially if it comes attached with mentorship and advice?

The sandwich generation of 40- to 60-something people, are often watching keenly as our aging adult children, parents and significant others make decisions that have direct bearing on their, and to some extent our, futures.  We are sometimes caught up in their choices as the safety net (caregiving, financially, logically, legally, and/or emotionally).  We often have some education and life-experience, and it is difficult just standing by while the people that we love make decisions that we believe might cause them set-backs or failures.  As proud as we are of our adult children, and as strong as we believe in our other family and friends, there comes a time where we need to ask the following questions:  “Do I want to have a compelling conversation with the intention to help this person, or do I need to leave the matter well-enough alone so that he or she can figure it out for him or herself?  In other words, do I want to have what I refer to as a “hands-on” or “hands-off” relationship where either choice to engage or disengage seems fraught with difficulty.”

Locus of Control:   “People who base their success on their own work and believe they control their lives have an internal locus of control. In contrast, people who attribute their success or failures to outside influences, have an external locus of control” (Rob Wengrzyn, 2017).  I also believe that people have a certain mentorship locus of control.  In other words, some people can accept advice as a mentee, and be secure enough to receive it; while others are not able to accept new information from someone else without feeling intruded upon or defensive.  I have observed that the more information that mentees can request and/or accept with grace from mentors, the better the experience might be with this support.

It is particularly important to listen to people who have education and experience in the context of their advice, and not merely attend to those who merely proclaim their strong opinions.   Mentorship credibility is sometimes very important in discerning from whom we will and will not accept advice.  With this being said, there is a clear balancing act of maintaining boundaries while accepting advice so that well-intentioned mentors do not over-step and insist on controlling mentees beyond suggestions.   However, assertive intervention on the part of the mentor/parent/child/friend is sometimes important (when handled correctly) where serious matters arise.

Hands-off Relationships:   Ideally, it would be great if we could just count on others to figure things out for themselves with limited consequences:  They would seek and listen to advice from relevant sources; research new ideas; consider all of the variables; and make well-informed decisions that would be the best ones possible for themselves and those around them.  However, sometimes this standard of problem solving is simply not possible, and the red-flags pop up in the forest.  The warning signs are everywhere, except to the people not seeing the forest for the trees.  In these situations, what do “hands-off” relationship builders do?

Typically, these people trust the natural outcomes and consequences in life.  They appear confident that decisions will come to some type of fruition from which new wisdom can be learned.  They trust that everyone involved, even in times of failure, will be resilient enough to get themselves back on track.  Nothing is too difficult to handle, or if it is, what is meant to be will be.  They trust in God, and say things like, “Everything happens for a reason”.  They feel that their intervention might appear arrogant, nosey or overbearing to assume that they know best.  They would prefer to let others figure it out for themselves, and to be supportive of people when they are asked to be involved.  “How else will they learn?”

The down-side of this “hands-off” mindset, is that occasionally, our loved ones, friends and other do not have the coping skills, education, emotional capacity, nor insight to always do what it takes to move forward in ways that are beneficial to them.  Sometimes people simply do not know what they do not know.  For example, aging parents are often unable to change easily due to fear brought upon them by their physical and emotional challenges.   Our children might simply be too young, have addictions, learning disabilities or other obstacles that are far beyond their psychological development or coping abilities.  Our significant other might be blinded by a fear of failure brought on by his/her family of origin.  When “hands-off” people stand back without providing information to their loved ones in need simply because they are not asked, or because it might involve conflict, things have the potential to spiral out of control.

There is often an external locus of control theme in their words:  “I have tried and whatever else I do will not likely make a difference, so why bother?  Why rock the boat?”   On the flip side, there can be a wisdom in saying, “I have done my best.  I have offered what I can, but it is up to them now” provided that every effort to help has actually been made in times that are possibly negative life changers for the mentees, such as illness, depression, suicide, unemployment or poverty.  Sometimes apathy, carelessness and neglect are cloaked in what people justify as a desire to simply be “hands-off”.  “It’s none of my business,” is the common disclaimer, or they don’t like “complicated, and so they will avoid anything that might resemble it.

Hands-On Relationships:  Ideally, mentees would ask for advice where they need it.  Unfortunately, they often do not due to pride or confusion, and if or when they do, it is sometimes too late.  Instead it comes in the plea for help in the middle of the night when a  girlfriend has dumped him, or a parent has been rushed to the hospital with a stroke after lying unnoticed for several hours because they were not wearing a lifeline.  “Hands-on” people choose to look ahead and anticipate problems.  They prefer to warn people about the Titanic that they see about to hit the ice-burgs.  They have learned some of their own life lessons the hard way (or through other means), and they want to proactively prevent problems.  They have a different type of trust.  They trust that God helps those who help themselves, and they want to help people be a couple of steps ahead of their difficulties.

What do “hands-on” people do in times of difficulty?  They tend to roll up their sleeves and get involved.  They don’t wait to be asked, even in the potential of rejection or reprisal.  They see it as their duty to help their tribe, and in doing so, they hope that this type of assistance will be reciprocal for them in the future.  “We are all in this together” is the shared sentiment of the “hands-on” mindset, even when it can seem like an overwhelming amount of information for the mentee.

The challenges of being with “hands-on” people is that sometimes it rings of co-dependence.  “Why are they this invested?” mentees ask themselves.  Mentees might feel it as an intrusion.  They want to have the opportunity to figure it out for themselves.  The lines of leadership become blurred as there are sometimes too many cooks in the kitchen.  Mentees often feel the pre-emptive pinch of these perceived worriers of what might happen and want to approach things another way.  Advice from mentors can come across a bit like judgment.  As a result, lines are drawn in the sand as the mentees set up boundaries.

“Hands-on” people sometimes sound a bit like “know-it-all’s” to the recipient of the information.  These people offering unsolicited advice sometimes do not know how or when to step in, nor how to do so kindly and tactfully.  Their effort to help is actually hiding a need to be important and valuable where they might be lacking it in other parts of their lives.  Where mentors might benefit mentees by giving them space to consider next steps, they jump in too quickly in an effort to rescue them.  It has the potential to create discord, especially where the people that they seek to aid are already feeling a lack of confidence in their circumstances.

Bystander Apathy:   Despite my effort to see the benefits of both mentor-mentee relationships writing this article, I think it is pretty obvious where I stand on this topic.  Too many times in history people have stood on the sidelines watching other men and women become oppressed by outside forces of war, famine, poverty, and discrimination; or by problems fought on the inside as a result of illness, addiction, or abuse.  “It’s none of my business!” is a powerful non-response made by those who could help.  I refer to this in its extreme context as a form of “bystander apathy” where people in crowds may be less likely to help someone in distress.  However, I have observed subtler shades of apathy in intimate relationships.  In contradiction to this type of thinking, the running commentary in my mind (right or wrong) when I grapple with whether to be involved or not in other people’s problems, is often, “If I don’t help, who actually will?”  It may be none of my business, but then are we not all in the business of being in a collective community where we help and look out for each other?

I remember visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, learning that only a small percentage of people involved in World War Two assisted people from the impending Jewish genocide.  The Holocaust Memorial in Israel recognizes only 24,356 people as Righteous Among the Nations helpers of the Jewish people (http://www.yadvashem.org/righteous, 2017).  As well, in North America,”[t]he Underground railway…was a complex, clandestine [and small] network of people and safe houses that helped persons enslaved in Southern plantations reach free soil in the North” (Henry, 2017, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/underground-railroad/).  These heroes and heroines chose to get involved in situations that were life-threatening even when they were not asked, and in some cases, where they failed to succeed.  Everyone was in danger, but the impetus to get involved was profound.

Being Judiciously Invested and Involved:  These are extreme war examples of support by small groups of people assisting large groups of people being bullied or targeted by hatred and fear.  However, it reminds me that sometimes the wars that people are going through may not be those of Nazi Germany or the war on slavery, but are the trials and tribulations of people simply growing older in the trauma of everyday life.  I believe that we need to find ways to be supportive of others even when the first response that they might snap back is “leave me alone!”  I know all too well how precarious it is to offer my twenty-five-year-old son advice when I believe that it is necessary to do so.  Unfortunately, he is just not that interested in talking to me about it.  However, if I don’t talk to him about key life matters as his mother (who has a strong relationship with him and has known him longer than anyone, by the way) can I count on another person to want to tackle it?

I guess I would rather error on the side of offering too much to people and getting hurt in the transaction rather than offering too little and having regrets, or worse yet, risking any harm coming to them because I did not offer my best.  Perhaps doing my best is to carefully consider the options and do one or the other or both:  to offer support in the form of empathy or solutions, and/or to stand back and let them steer their own ship to safe harbours without any involvement from me whatsoever.  There are no clear “right” answers in this regard as we are all entitled to our own opinions; and each situation should be measured on a case-by-case basis.  However, in reflection, I favour people taking action (within reason) because it is often that little intervention of constructive criticism, feedback or advice that can make all of the difference to a situation.

For me, an example of when I was offered unsolicited advice in my life, my mentor nominated me for a promotion without my awareness nor permission.  At first, I was scared, and not sure that I wanted to be pushed out of the nest of my current job, but eventually, it became the first step in a long line of next steps towards a rewarding career.  My father was also someone who was always willing to step into the fray with me as a mentor, and would often ask if I had changed the oil in my car or had invested money in RSP’s.  I found the reminders incredibly annoying, but he had an uncanny way of knowing when my odometer reading required attention for a tune-up or my bank account omitted savings.  Later in life, I found myself calling my son with the same reminders, meeting with the same annoyed sigh and agreement that, “Yes, he would get to it next week“.

In terms of my marriage, my husband reigns me in.  I do not like to be told when to stop doing things when I am in full motion, even when it is late at night.  It feels a bit like jumping off a train when I am just passing by the best scenery, but he is usually right about some of my tendencies to burn the candle at both ends.  I recently re-read the classic book The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck (2003).   It reminded me of the value of honesty in a relationship.  “…[L]oving spouses must repeatedly confront each other if the marriage relationship is to serve the function of promoting the spiritual growth of the partners. No marriage can be judged truly successful unless husband and wife are each other’s best critics.”  My experience has been that offering feedback to my spouse is a very tricky, but valuable “hands-on” approach to deepening and developing our marital relationship.

Building Bridges Over Troubled Waters:  And so, my husband and I do speak openly and honestly to each other about almost everything, and although it can be sometimes contentious (not always), we have become more adept at being honest with one another.  My son keeps coming home to visit, regardless of the possibility of a lively mother-son check-in on certain compelling topics, such as diet, doctor’s appointments, investing and exercise.  Our relationship has become more authentic as our roles have morphed into some role-reversal moments.  He now offers me advice on my health and wellness, and I need to be receptive so that he gets practice in this regard because someday he will be my caregiver.  My friends and colleagues keep in touch, and where I may have given them advice in the past (and visa versa), some of them are now infinitely more knowledgeable in their lives, careers and specializations.  I find myself asking them for advice quite a bit.  Yes, I have also lost people along the way where our relationships could not sustain what we were offering or not offering each other.  However, I have learned something from every relationship, appreciating the hands-on and hands-off approaches that both helped and hindered us within them.

In essence, “[l]ove is not simply giving; it is judicious giving and judicious withholding as well. It is judicious praising and judicious criticizing. It is judicious arguing, struggling, confronting, urging, pushing and pulling in addition to comforting. It is leadership”  (M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled, 2003).  Both hands-on and hands-off relationship strategies are valuable, and are not always mutually exclusive of each other.  However, how easy would this question of being involved or not being involved by mentors be if mentees simply asked for help or advice.  Instead of getting caught up in pride, ego or fear, we would instead turn to people who we know can mentor us with their knowledge and love; and support us through the experience.  The humble and magical words, “I could use your advice,” can often break the spell of relationship ambivalence, intrusion or confusion.  This way we can all reciprocally connect and support each other building bridges over troubled waters and developing efficacious relationships in the process.











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