Reinforcements: A book review by Bob Morris

Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You
Heidi Grant
Harvard Business Review Press (June 2018)

In a situation when there is a request for help, how to nourish both parties’ emotional needs while alleviating their anxieties.

According to Heidi Grant, “There’s an inherent paradox in asking someone for their help: while help freely and enthusiastically given makes the giver feel good, researchers have found that the emotional benefits of providing help to others disappear when people feel controlled — when they are instructed to help, when they believe that they should help, or when they feel they simply have no choice but to help.

“In other words, a sense of personal agency — that you are helping because you want to — is essential for reaping the psychological benefits of giving support. When you don’t genuinely want to help, there’s nothing in it for the helper except getting it over with as quickly and with as little effort as possible. And this simple fact — more than any other — is why I wanted to write this book.”

To what does the title of this book refer? “I chose to write this book, Reinforecements, because there are two senses of the word ‘reinforcements,’ and each captures something really important about seeking support.” Grant then shares her thoughts about the two subdivisions.

She achieves these three separate but interdependent objectives:

1. She explains WHY people generally hate to ask for help.
2. She explains WHAT she views as the right way to ask for help, suggesting specific techniques.
3. Then she explains WHY those who reinforce others need motivators to enrich the interaction.

Since childhood, my single-parent mother raised me to with a few basic articles of faith. One is the idea that we should do what is right — such as acts of kindness and generosity — for its own sake, without expectation of reciprocity. Grant shares her thoughts about this in the book (see pages 72-76) and seems to agree with my mother that, in general, there should be no strings attached when helping others. That said, we have all encountered people who taker advantage of us, exploit our natural inclination to do what we can to be helpful. There is practical wisdom in the ancient saying, “First time, shame on you. Second time, shame on me.”

As I worked my way through the book, I was again reminded of how essential empathy is to the health of a relationship. Both asking for and being asked for help can so easily be misunderstood and, on occasion, be very unpleasant. It’s a delicate, fragile situation. Those who develop empathy usually sense what another person’s motives are.

This is one of Heidi Grant’s key points: Most people are willing and able to help when asked for it but many of them need to understand the dynamics of the interaction, especially for those who make the request. In essence, both parties can — and should — reinforce each other’s emotional needs while alleviating each other’s anxieties. This remarkable, thoughtful and thought-provoking, book explains HOW.

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