In a lovely NY Times article, Jancee Dunn described a conversation with her sister, a teacher,

‘“What do you do when a kid is emotionally overwhelmed?’ I asked. Many teachers at her school, she told me, ask students a simple question: Do you want to be helped, heard or hugged?

The choice gives children a sense of control, which is important when they’re following school rules all day, Heather said. ‘And all kids handle their emotions differently,’ she explained. ‘Some need a box of tissues, or they want to talk about a problem on the bus, and I’ll just listen.’

It struck me (Jancee) that this question could be just as effective for adults.”

Jancee goes on to describe how it works in adult relationships.

It struck me (George) that this question could be just as effective in business situations as the choice gives people that same sense of control, which can make all the difference in how much they will value the support you give them.


Sometimes people just need to be hugged. In this case, hugged is a metaphor for encouraged. They just need someone to appreciate them and what they are doing to give them a little more confidence in themselves. This is straight out of Virgil, “They can because they think they can.”

The “hug” can be as simple as, “You’ve got this.” Or it could be a little more elaborate: “I think you’re thinking about this exactly right. Wouldn’t change a thing.” Or, “You know you’re right.”

For example, one person came to me concerned about an upcoming sales call. I said “You know your customer. You know our offering. You’re going in with a solution to their problem. You’ve got this.” They did.


Sometimes people just need to be heard. Often, they’re just rehearsing what they’re going to say to others. Other times they just need to hear themselves say the words.

Hearing can be as simple as just listening. Other times you can play back what you heard. “What I heard you say was….” Doing that allows them to compare what you heard with what they wanted you to hear, giving them a chance to adjust their emphasis as appropriate.

For example, one person was greatly concerned about an upcoming conversation with their boss. I just asked them to walk me through what they planned to say. When they were done. I just smiled. I didn’t have to say a word. Their dress rehearsal with me went well – as did their meeting.


Back to Jancee Dunn’s sister’s comment about choices giving children a sense of control, in some ways we’re all still children. (And, of course, we all should strive to be like children in other ways. But that’s a different article.) People are almost always going to more open to help if you give them the choice of being heard, hugged or helped.

Let them choose if they want your help and how much help they want. The help might be input, or a decision, or resources, or taking over for them. In any case, help without stifling or being in the way.

Presentation coaching

I’ve used something similar to this with people that have wanted “help” with a presentation. My general rule of thumb is to give people help with:

their content if they have time to adjust the content – at least a few days before a presentation.

how to rearrange their existing content without changing the pieces – at least 24 hours before a presentation.

how to adjust phrasing without rearranging existing content if they are less than a day away from a presentation.

In the first case, help with content when people ask for help, I ask if they are open to minor adjustments or open-heart surgery. Different people choose different things, setting me up to give them the help they want – and no more.

Inspire, Enable, Empower

This is closely related to the notion that leadership is about inspiring, enabling and empowering others to do their absolute best together to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose.

Helping, hearing and hugging can be inspiring, enabling and empowering when done right. A key point is that helping on its own can be disheartening, disabling and disempowering when done wrong. Hence the logic in giving people the choice of whether they want to be hugged, heard or helped.