How can I be better at anticipating others' practical needs?
March 5, 2015 5:45 AM   Subscribe

I want to get better at accommodating others when they are trying to do something practical. Holding doors open for others is the obvious example, but other little things such as remembering to grab a spoon along with food someone requested, positioning myself as to not get in the way of others when people are moving things, keeping things tidy, retrieving the right tools for a job...

I am not terribly practically-minded, and I am probably even worse when it comes to being practical-minded for others, even though I have good intentions.

Basically: I want to improve in my ability to notice and quickly respond to others' needs, so that I can make myself useful instead of standing around and getting in the way. I would like to be somebody that people enjoy working with, and not "you can help me out by getting out of the kitchen." How can I improve at this?
posted by gemutlichkeit to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I would like to be somebody that people enjoy working with, and not "you can help me out by getting out of the kitchen."

Please note that in many cases this is not because you're an impediment, but just because they prefer to work independently. I've often found myself having to politely usher people out of the kitchen when they want to help with the cooking, because I don't have the headspace to tell them what to do and concentrate on what I'm doing at the same time.

But to answer your actual question, you can learn about people's needs by just slowing down and watching. If you're lost in your own little world on the train, you won't notice the pregnant lady who's just gotten on and needs a place to sit. You won't notice that guy who's dropped all his shopping and needs a hand retrieving it.

This is useful when you're a guest at someone else's house, and you want to be helpful and not a nuisance but you don't know what to do in order to help. Just relax, breathe and watch. If you notice, for example, that your friend keeps her cutlery in the second drawer to the left, you can set the table without disturbing her to ask where she keeps the cutlery. If you notice that the baby is crawling around, you can make sure that all small inedible things are kept out of his reach.

I do feel for you because I have felt this way often, before I realised that I just needed to slow down and look properly and wait till I saw an opportunity to help. Nothing's less helpful than getting in the way trying to help when actually everything is under control without you.

With the kitchen example, I don't help anymore unless specifically asked, because I know what a personal space that is to many people, and how often help from others is actually unwelcome.
posted by Ziggy500 at 6:04 AM on March 5, 2015 [12 favorites]

I find that if I say to myself, "Self, what would I want or expect in this situation?" I usually cover the bases.
posted by 724A at 6:28 AM on March 5, 2015 [7 favorites]

A lot of this requires you to problem solve the immediate future. Which means you have to be thinking about potential problems in the next 10 seconds to 5 minutes and doing what you can to solve those problems.

"She wanted ice cream.. what else do you need to eat ice cream? Oh, a spoon!"
"Where are they planning on moving that item to? Against that wall? If I were moving that item over there.. I would take this path.. thus I think it's safe if I stand over here and out of the way."
"I'm going into the kitchen.. what can I take with me that belongs in the kitchen? Ah, I can throw this paper plate away while I'm there."
"He said to get the drill.. which probably means he needs drill bits. Is he drilling or screwing? Hmm we're putting up a shelf on dry wall, he probably needs both so let me bring the whole kit."

After you do this enough it becomes ingrained.
posted by royalsong at 6:33 AM on March 5, 2015 [7 favorites]

I know this is a slightly different user case, but I struggled with this exact issue when I was promoted from a project implementer to a project manager role.

It's hard at first, especially if this line of thinking isn't intuitive to you (as it wasn't to me).

Agreed with Ziggy on the importance of just sitting back and paying attention. Look for patterns: what are the types of things that people do over and over again? What are the types of things that are often needed in a given situation? The food/spoon example is a great one.

In the beginning, learning to do this was a VERY manual process for me. Before I had a meeting with my boss I'd think to myself, "What can I do now that will make Kathryn's job easier?" And then I'd try and think two or three steps ahead. ("We're making an editorial calendar -> editorial calendars are done by hand in this office -> we need printed copies of a blank calendar -> we need pencils with good erasers -> I will print two copies and bring two pencils with good erasers.")

It's onerous at first but (a) it gets way easier and (b) it's totally worth it, both at work and at home.
posted by harperpitt at 6:35 AM on March 5, 2015 [7 favorites]

I agree that the biggest thing is slowing down, being present, and cutting out distractions. I'm way more likely to be able to notice that someone needs something if I'm not on my phone or mentally vacationing in Bermuda.

Also, it sounds like you want to work on this skill in a combination of situations -- both strangers (i.e. holding a door) and people you are around reguarly (i.e. you're getting them soup). For the friend/collegue/partner category, I think it's also good and fine to ask what folks need and want. I honestly find someone who is overly attentive/tring to anticipate my every need kinda annoying. I once went on a few dates with a guy who was tripping over himself to try and open every door for me and basically just getting in the way rather than helping. I say this not to make you feel bad -- I'm sure some women would love that! -- but just to point out that for some people, the most helpful thing really is to get out of the kitchen and not bug them when they are cooking (hey, that's a good time to put in a load of laundry!). When you're dealing with folks you're going to interact with repeatedly rather than one-off strangers, open communication can go a lot further than trying to guess/anticipate needs.
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:41 AM on March 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

My favorite people to work with (in my lab job, in doing home remodeling, when planning a vacation, just about any time) are people who are good at exactly what you're describing, and it's a skill I've definitely put some thought into. It involves watching what someone's doing, and knowing not just what they're doing, but why and how. I put myself into their position and imagine doing the task, and I think about what I would need next. I look to see if they have that, and then I get it for them.
Then I set it within easy reach, but don't insist that they use it. Maybe your friend already had a spoon; maybe my coworker was planning a different next step and doesn't need that wrench yet. It's not my job to tell someone what they want, or tell them what to do next, but it doesn't hurt to make things available. I don't ask them before I go "Hey do you need a Philips head screwdriver next?" because they're busy on task A; but if I can see 4 Philips screws that will eventually need to be undone, I just go get it, to have on hand. Similarly, if you start to hold a door for someone, and they don't seem inclined to go through it, you let go and walk away, you don't stand there saying "nono, I insist, after you" or it gets really annoying. The more you practice, the better you'll get.
- imagine what you'd want if you were them - not for this step, but for the next step. Plan ahead.
- don't verbally offer (because that makes them plan, manage you, and/or owe you a favor) just do it
- don't care one way or the other whether they want to use the thing you've provided (because then you're managing them in a passive-aggressive way)
posted by aimedwander at 9:16 AM on March 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm not very good at this myself...

I find what really helps me is picturing the person's end goal. If someone says, "Please bring me ice cream." I try to picture if they're trying to put it on top of their root beer? Eat it by itself? And then I try to bring everything else that is needed in that "scene" I picture in my head.

It gets easier the more you do it, and you'll find out what things are just "you" things and which ones are more general.

Also, some people are really good at delegating (it's a hard skill!) and some people are not.
posted by ethidda at 10:27 AM on March 5, 2015

This is a different angle than the "being thoughtful by opening a door" idea, but: You could learn specific skills that come in handy, depending on your inclinations and what types of environments you spend time in. Like maybe learn the basics of A/V setups, so that when someone is fiddling with the tv or stereo and running into problems you can help instead of standing around shrugging. Or get more comfortable doing minor car stuff (patch a tire, check fluids, know what to do in common problem-situations like overheating engine). Or learn basic first aid and carry a small first aid kit with you. Or basic sewing tasks like putting a button back on or fixing a torn seam (and again, have the tools with you). Or basic phone/internet/computer troubleshooting.

Do you notice when other people are helpful in this way? Keep a running written list of examples of practical helpfulness for awhile and then you'll have some examples to analyze to figure out what that person did that was helpful, and you can copy them next time you are in a similar situation.
posted by aka burlap at 10:42 AM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've been working on this myself for a while, and I find it important to, you know, actually try things. Observation and thinking about what you can do to help (as e.g. aimedwander suggest) is all well and good, but it's no substitute for making an attempt, seeing whether or not it worked, and then figuring out (a) whether you should make the attempt again next time you see a similar situation, and (b) how to do it better. You'll see all sorts of ways in which your internal simulations of what's needed failed to to match reality.

Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, here: as long as your help is a generally a net positive and you're improving, it's perfectly OK to be less (even far less) than optimally helpful.

(Now, it's important to do this in a reasonably friendly context: if people are going to get very angry at sub-optimal help, you might want to find another place to learn and practice.)
posted by golwengaud at 1:05 PM on March 5, 2015

Best answer: When my mom is in the kitchen with me, it's a nightmare. When Mr. Llama's mom is in the kitchen with me, it's a dream.

The difference is that one understands what I'm doing and one does not. But knowledge of that is dependent on 'oh, she's making risotto' and therefore she's stuck and the dishes need to be done, table needs to be set. So part of it is just knowing what the other person is doing and what their timing needs are.

I'm supremely grateful for the person who doesn't ask - who just does. Little things are often the hardest. And typically unglamorous.

In terms of, 'how can I get better at this?' though....I think in the end it means getting past yourself (not You but You like universal You). We're all so consumed with our internal dialogue it's easy to miss that the woman behind you in line is holding two gallons of milk, one in each hand, and dangling a full shopping basket.

So in the end, I'll go with: awareness. And awareness starts of being aware that we're generally not really aware. So I'll go with the Old Tyme Metafilter Classic and say if you're deadly serious: meditation.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:42 PM on March 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

To add on to A Terrible Llama's example in the kitchen: I'm thinking about "helping to clear the table" for example ... if everything you do requires you to ask someone "what should I do with this?" or "where do you want me to put this?", then it's not at all helpful for you to do that task. Try to find something that you can do yourself (wipe things, or stack things, or sweep the floor) , or that only requires a quick question to get started (where are your washcloths? where is the potato peeler?) and then you can work for a while using that knowledge without more questions.

Out in public, I really like to be helpful, so I always have a little game of "how helpful can I be" going on in my head. I notice when people drop things and I try to help pick it up. I notice when I am going through a door if there is someone behind me so I can tell whether to hold it or not. I notice if someone needs a seat on the bus more than I do, etc. Sometimes this gets me into trouble, usually if I am thinking that someone looks like they need help or directions or help with a vending machine - sometimes I guess wrong and create a big clusterf*ck of explanations of how i was just trying to help but I was totally wrong about what they needed, so I'm trying harder to quit guessing.

Another thing to look at: the word Socioception - the sense of yourself in relation to other people around you.
posted by CathyG at 9:40 AM on March 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

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