Tara West

This article was originally posted to LinkedIn and Facebook on December 1, 2022

Today I tried to rescue a spider. He was sitting at the bottom of my kitchen sink, seemingly unable to crawl up the side to get out. So I took a flyer that was nearby, and a special insect-catching contraption (which really only works on flat surfaces), and approached the spider from different angles. The spider fell onto the flyer, and then promptly fell off - right into the entrance of the garbage disposal.

So now the situation is worse, but not hopeless. He’s sitting on the flexible flap at the entrance to the disposal, staying very still, probably waiting for the coast to clear so he can crawl off. Although I knew he’d be able to crawl off the flap, I was worried he might crawl down into the garbage disposal (or maybe I’d forget he’s there and run the water). So I grab a ladle to place under him, but in the process, I end up pushing down the flap, and he falls right into the garbage disposal. After berating myself for my clumsiness, I realize there’s probably a lesson in there somewhere.

How many times have we tried to help someone, only to make the situation worse? We see someone in distress, grab whatever tools we can think of, and start aiming them in their direction. Maybe we tell them everything will be okay, and we try to get them to look at things from a different perspective. Or maybe we tell them what we think they should do, or (more subtly) what we’d do if we were in their situation. Surprisingly, after all of our efforts, the person just seems even worse off.

Sometimes people (and insects) in distress do need our help. I believe I was correct to see that the spider was not getting out of the sink on his own. But instead of relying on my own efforts to get him out, and using whatever tools happened to come to mind, I could have offered the type of support that would have allowed him to get himself out of the situation in the best way he knew how, for example by presenting him with a paper towel he could have stepped on and held onto.

Sometimes the most minimal support - just enough to help someone help themself - is what is needed most. As a transformative mediator and conflict coach, what this often looks like is simply reflecting what I’m hearing the person say so they can hear themself more clearly. This allows them to regain their strength and make their own good decisions in a way that works for them.

While writing this, it occurred to me that maybe it’s not too late for the spider. So I fashioned a ladder of paper towels, and put one end of the ladder at the bottom of the disposal and the other end outside of the sink. At this point, there’s nothing more for me to do besides trust the spider to figure out how climb to safety, relying on his own strength and his own instincts.... and for me to simply let go of the outcome (which I will probably never know anyway!).

Have you ever tried to help someone, only to make the situation worse?


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