EQ Rule #6: Emotional Intelligence: Help First

By Justin Bariso, Principal, EQ Applied
Reprinted with Permission

A Story

It’s actually two stories, almost identical—except for the endings.

Story 1 goes like this: I wake up with a full day ahead of me. I’ve got to finish writing an article for Inc., and finish preparing a presentation I’m scheduled to deliver on the same day.

Ok. I can do this.

But something’s not right.

I come out of the office to use the bathroom, and I can see my wife’s overwhelmed. She’s trying to write a letter and all three kids are going full on crazy: One’s crying because he can’t figure out his homework, the other two are crying because … who even knows at this point. It’s just what they do.

Of course, I was unaware of all of this until I stepped out of my office. (When I close the door to work and put on my headphones, WWIII could be happening outside and I wouldn’t notice it. Which is basically what was happening.)

What’s my initial reaction?

I stealthily slide my way into the bathroom to do my business, in and out, like Tom Cruise breaking into CIA headquarters in Mission Impossible. Then, I try to go back to work

But before long, I take a peak outside. My wife’s crying—she’s reached her limit. I get frustrated with the situation, get upset with the kids, and that makes things worse for everyone. I end up even further behind on my work, sending my day into a downward spiral.

Everybody’s hating life, and it takes at least a day or two to recover.

The second story starts the same way.

But this time, when I come out and see my wife overwhelmed, I stop. I take a deep breath, and I say two little words to myself:

Help first.

With those two simple words, my perspective switches. Instead of focusing on myself, I’m focused on helping my wife. I’m like a first responder—my job is to do whatever it takes to get my wife to safety as soon as possible.

So, I help my son. I separate the other two, help them clean up their mess, and then give them a snack. I give my wife a hug, and ask what I can do to help.

This time, there’s a much happier ending.

My wife is touched by my efforts to help, knowing that I have such a busy day ahead of me.

Since I put her needs first, she’s gained strength and motivation. She’s in a better mood, which puts everyone else in a better mood. And when I finally sit down to work again, she’s super supportive.

She even brings me a cup of coffee.

The Lesson

In both versions, I get a later start than I wanted…

But the second one ends much better than the first.

Both are true stories. The first is the way things used to go. The second is usually how things go now.

It’s all because of the “help first rule”:

If you’re in a difficult situation, and you notice someone else is too, try helping first.

This is a little counterintuitive, if you think about it. We tend to focus on ourselves, especially in times of trouble.

But here’s the thing: It’s those times of trouble that we especially need help from others.

And the best way to get help, is to give help.

Because empathy begets empathy.

In a home or workplace that lacks empathy, relationships deteriorate. Both parties wonder: Why won’t the other person help?

The answer is, because they’re both looking for help.

It’s like a game of tug-of-war, each pulling in their own direction, hoping the other will budge.

But when you take the initiative to help first, you break the cycle.

Suddenly, the other person feels understood. Now, they’re more likely to reciprocate the effort.

Not only does this help things in the short-term; it gradually helps to build a culture where people are motivated to prioritize the needs of others.

You can apply the help first rule at work, at home, and basically everywhere else.

Do you see:

  • A colleague who’s frustrated with a situation that seems minor in comparison to yours? Help first.
  • A boss struggling with a task, even as you know you’re behind deadline? Help first.
  • Your barista is having a bad day, on the same day as you? Help first.
  • Your child who is struggling with their feelings—while you’re struggling with your own feelings, too? Help first.
  • A spouse who’s overwhelmed, when you happen to be overwhelmed at the same time? Help first.

You might be surprised at what happens next.

Try This

Today, when things aren’t going quite the way you planned, or if you’re not getting the help you need from others, do the counterintuitive thing…

And help first.

Consider those around you. Think about what you can do to make their life easier.

In summary

When you help first, you’ll find that you and people around you:

  • smile more
  • feel better about yourself/themselves
  • feel energized
  • get more done

Use this handy worksheet to explore EQ Rule #6: Emotional Intelligence: Help First

About the Author

Justin Bariso, Principal, EQ Applied
The founder of EQ Applied, Justin Bariso helps organizations and individuals develop their emotional intelligence. His thoughts on leadership and EQ draw over a million readers a month, and LinkedIn named him a “Top Voice” in the field of management and workplace culture three years in a row. His book, EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence, shares fascinating research, modern examples, and personal stories that illustrate how emotional intelligence works in the real world. Email: [email protected]


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Disclaimer: This article is written for educational purposes only. Every reasonable effort has been made to ensure its accuracy and completeness. It is the responsibility of the reader to refer to the definitions, descriptions, conventions, and guidelines specific to each coding classification, as well as relevant laws and regulations when selecting and reporting medical codes.

About the Author

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