When I lead CEO groups or coach executive teams, I usually take a minute to explain the Hierarchy of Help. People can help each other in many ways, but some ways are more helpful than others.

Below are the 7 types of help. The ones at the top of the list are high impact and can be used liberally. The ones at the bottom of the list should be used with some judgement.

Use the hierarchy to improve how you ask for help. You can also use it to hone in on how you can help others.

  1. Validation. Validation simply means giving people the confidence that they are on the right track. A leader might say they are thinking to have 1:1 meetings weekly with their direct reports to improve rapport and communication and ask your opinion. If you agree, then you would just say “sounds like a good plan to me.”
  2. Shared Experience. Shared experience means sharing what you have actually experienced (good or bad) and what your insights were. If a leader asks you about ways to boost sales, you might share what you have actually done in the area of content marketing and how that worked out. Shared experience is not speculative.
  3. Connections. Connections means connecting people with people that may be able to help them. If a CEO seems to need help with their Board, you might suggest a board developer who you know does great work.
  4. Accountability. Accountability means helping to remind a person about their goals and commitments. This one requires permission, otherwise it can just be perceived as nagging.
  5. Brainstorming. Brainstorming means working together to come up with options to improve something. Again, this works very well if permission had been given and if it is made clear that they person being helped needs to take responsibility for what they will (or won’t) do with those options.
  6. Suggestions. Suggestions are advice that someone take specific action. They differ from shared experience in that the person offering them may not have direct experience about whether the suggestion will work or not. A suggestion might just be an insight like “maybe consider making a mastermind group with other service providers like you who operate in your space to share ideas.” Because these suggestions are untested, they should be used sparingly.
  7. Empathy. Empathy means showing concern and care for the person and the issue they are dealing with. As a way of help, empathy should be used sparingly, meaning for not very long. The risk is that empathy can soon turn into commiseration. When the person is ready to move forward (and that totally depends on them, like a past client who was devastated to learn they had been embezzled by their bookkeeper who was also a long-time friend of the family) then you can offer to help in other ways that will improve their condition.

Everyone wants to be helpful. Use discernment about how you help. The help you give will be more beneficial, received better, and take less time to give.