Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Lately I’ve been busy writing an abbreviated history of my life and times for The Blog and the website. One of the dangers and benefits of all the writing is that it inspires other writing. This here topic came up while I was doing a bit of a bio. The wording came out as I was typing, and it made me laugh: stealth-help. Sometimes we need it. I don’t know how I’d have gone without it.
I’ve been the lucky recipient of quite a bit of stealth-help. While I was in the Washington, DC area, it came to me in the aid of: a) building partnerships and coalitions behind-the-scenes for government programs and policies, b) brainstorming and exploring potential for the same, c) whistle-blowing activities for more of the same, d) networking to bring others to the table for A, B, or C…. or e) networking when it’s near time to move on.
Washington, DC is a mecca for the coffee, lunch, or dinner meeting for any one of a gigantic array of purposes. It’s occurred to me that perhaps this is why some parts of the city can sustain a one-Starbucks-per-block density.
I’ve had my share of stealth-help meet-ups. Some of my “coffee” meetings were the biggest pivot-points in my federal career. Some led to many more meetings about exciting things; some to potential jobs. I’ve seen many a formal coalition or partnership grow out of a casual coffee meet-up. I’ve seen them lead to contracts, and I’ve seen them as a start to dissolving years of drama.
Once I started whistle-blowing (short story here, with more detail here on the reasons), a few of these coffee-type meetings got to be a bit unnerving; because it’s like a whole different risk paradigm, and also because the logistics get tricky. Quiet alliance-building between offices or toward existing initiatives is one thing. Finding partners to help save a high-profile national post-9/11 program is another.
I found a rare urban quiet spot in the middle of a museum right near our building where I could make secret-squirrel phone calls. I had an office at the time, but whistle-blowing at any scale calls for some prudence. There’s no need to be reckless when you can do some risk mitigation (#counterfear). One housekeeping point: this wasn't some sort of whistle-blowing that the agency I worked for wasn't aware of. This was done on union time through my role as a shop steward.
I don’t write this to give you my methodology. I write this because sometimes we need "stealth-help." This is about planting seeds for more.
Sometimes we’re in a position to give. Sometimes we need to ask.
I needed stealth-help in the form of people who could help try to save a national program. With something like that, everyone has to weigh their own risk and time with what they are willing to invest and how far to go. In my effort, many people helped, to various comfort levels. Several key folks made a deep investment, and helped me get in touch with the people pulling the levers and buttons behind the scenes. People helped in often-surprising ways. Connections, conversations, information, politics, protection. Many committed to additional help, if things were to escalate in various ways.
I will never understand some of it, but nothing would have happened if I - and others - didn’t ask. While we didn’t save the national program, a whole lot of other stuff happened along the way. Some progress did occur. A few connections were made that have been very significantly helpful for the national disaster response landscape, and they happened without any official government staff involvement. They started through some of these quiet but helpful conversations, over coffee.
Stealth-help is really about connection. Because we’re people, and we like people (right? we do like people...), we want - and we need - to help each other. All of my stealth-help has come from connection, and not just because I’m a natural networker. I had to invest: I started by asking. I put out feelers, dropped hints, and followed leads. I had people pull me aside after seeing me speak or participate in a meeting; often out of their own concern about the state of things. Once we had a connection, I would give more information on the overall situation. If they seemed concerned, I would ask if they were interested in knowing more and possibly helping. A fire chief friend calls this the leg-sniffing process “to put it politely,” he says. When you are in the stealth-help realm, a little leg-sniffing is probably wise.
I write this because we don’t all have to be Washington-insiders to stealth-help. We don’t have to be any kind of insider, and we don’t have to be in Washington. We don’t have to be wealthy. We don’t need a ton of free time. We can do it right in our neighborhoods, offices, families, and churches.
This is part of connection: helping people who need help. Quietly. On the side.
Before I get into the ideas list, I will say two more things. Just like any other assistance, stealth-help succeeds when it is given with respect. People may look like they need help, but may or may not be receptive to it. Forcing help or providing different help than what is actually needed can be a problem and is actually not helpful.
In other words, and please excuse the language, but don't be an asshole.
The second thing is that before applying stealth-help, it may be useful to ask a question based on “The Work” from Byron Katie: is this my business, someone else’s business, or God’s business (or other entity as appropriate)? The answer can give some insight about how to proceed with the stealth-helping. It is a bit of a dance, but it is about connecting. When we make an authentic connection with someone, it is clearer to both what is needed.
Here are some stealth-help ideas…
- Be open to networking invitations to coffee or lunch from acquaintances or colleagues who may need conversation, connection, mentoring, or assistance. Some folks schedule networking meetings to deepen connections, some to learn more about a particular field or career path, and some to explore potential opportunities. These may be stealthy discussions if a person is looking at a career or job change. Or looking into a possible mentor relationship. Etc.
- Create the time for a person when you see a need. Be open to spontaneously re-arranging your schedule to spare a few minutes.
- Be open to connection, and to listening.
- Ask someone in a tough spot quietly and on the side if they would like to talk. Listening goes a long way. Sometimes people are not looking for a solution; but just a connection. Conversation is priceless.
- Say hi, and smile or wave. Now that I’m back in the Midwest, I’m loving that people do this way more often than in major metro coastal areas. This is a not-always-stealthy thing to do that helps us all. A genuine smile can go a long way to shift a moment for someone.
- Perhaps acknowledge a look, at a tough meeting or gathering. Give support where it’s appropriate.
- Send thank you notes or nice emails, even on little things.
- Send follow-up notes to supervisors, companies, or others when employees, etc. are fantastic.
- Professionally address issues when there is a need for improvement, quietly, on the side, and without a lot of production or attention outside of those who need to be involved.
- Write a nice review of an experience or product that resonated with you, and post it in the appropriate place on the interwebs. Quite a bit of commerce today is based on anonymous reviews.
- Mentor or coach, as it is invited, welcomed, or appropriate. Obviously this does not have to be stealthy, but there are some situations where that might be more appropriate.
- Provide quiet compliments and support, when comments given around a whole group might garner unwanted attention for whatever reason.
- Call 911 when there is an obvious emergency or violent situation near you. Don’t assume it’s been handled, unless you know for certain that it has. UPDATED FOR 2018: For the love of all that is good and holy, DO NOT call in people who are making you uncomfortable by their very presence. Consider how police will respond and treat the people in question. Consider if there is a real threat to public safety, and if this situation is more important than someone who may have a life-threatening emergency. Call in only actual emergencies.
- Call 911 when it sounds like your neighbors are going to kill each other or something close. Domestic violence or any violence is a situation for back-up. Do not directly engage. Domestic violence especially can be volatile and escalate quickly.
- When you are not sure if something is an actual emergency but might require intervention, call the local non-emergency number in the phone book. In some cities, there may be a shorter number, such as “311.” Check in your local phone book - or if you consider phone books to be antiquities from the days of yore, Google “non-emergency number” and the name of your city and state. Turns out the state part can be important, and people under stress don’t always think critically about things like an unfamiliar area code. Preparedness tip: do this now, and save it to your phone contacts and/or put it on the fridge. Refer to the bullet above on calling in only appropriate incidents, and not those situations which are causing discomfort.
- Inconspicuously give information cards to people who you suspect may need said information. This is a tricky area, but your community may have cards with contact information to find assistance with food, shelter, domestic violence, sexual assault, suicide, group support, and so on.
- Follow your instincts. If you feel like someone is in actual danger, take appropriate action. There are suicide prevention lines (check the Google), addiction support resources, the Blue Campaign (hopefully still funded) to combat human trafficking tip line, and a ton of other nationally and locally available resources. For example, Washington, DC has a hypothermia hotline that you can call when you see homeless people without shelter in the freezing cold (with an alternate for extreme heat). There are lots of ways to help folks even when you may not be in a position to directly participate in the assistance.
- Donate cash or gift cards inconspicuously to a person in need.
- Philanthropy: donate clothes, time, or money to a cause. Find creative ways to donate things you don’t need, rather than throwing them away. Many communities have behind-the-scenes donation programs for all sorts of things outside of the traditional Goodwill or Salvation Army channels. Churches may take and redistribute furniture that is not otherwise accepted. Community closets redistribute food, career clothes, and even formal attire.
- Some of us are required to provide stealth help in our jobs. Teachers in many states are mandatory reporters for abuse or neglect of children.
- Politics. This may not be an obvious stealth-help area, but there are a lot of people that need to keep their political leanings on the down-low for ethical, career, and/or legal reasons. However, you can still find ways to participate if it is important to you (and legal). For example, federal employees are limited in part by the Hatch Act from certain political activities, including fundraising and doing anything party-related at work. You can still help in many ways. You just can’t talk about it at work. Etc. It’s good to know the rules on this one, wherever you are.
- Relatives and neighbors. These may depend on your family and/or neighborhood dynamics. I grew up in a place where word might quietly get around that a particular family needed help through a rough patch. Maybe they didn’t want to widely broadcast their situation. Soon, food or other support would start showing up. People would help out with a project, or a move. I’ve got relatives that will call other relatives to give a heads-up when something is off-kilter, or if someone needs some help or extra support.
This isn’t the world of some far off time, long-since passed. This is the world we create when we connect; when we create the space for assistance. When we ask, and when we allow ourselves to receive. When we are open to give; even for a moment.
If you’ve got more stealth-help thoughts, it would be great to see them in the comments below.
In the meantime, I’ll close with a shout-out to those who have stealth-helped me. Shoot, people are still stealth-helping me, but now in very different ways… and with a lot less strategic coffee-drinking. I will be forever grateful to those who have touched my life. I may never see some of these people again, and may never have a chance to properly thank them. But I’d never have made it as far as I have without the stealth-help. It has been a source of resilience, fortitude, strength, perseverance, inspiration, and motivation. It is an anchor.
We all do the things we can do, in part because of the support and connection of others.
Check it out! You can get stealth-coaching! Or not-so-stealthy coaching! Whichever works for you. Go to the private coaching at inclusive pricing rates page to see what's available. Let's make things happen -
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