This week I’m looking at the advice that writer Louise Penny puts in the mouth of her character, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Gamache tells his protégés that there are “four sentences that we must learn to say, and to mean.”
Gamache has to specifically advise young police officers about these four sentences because they are hard to say—if they were easy, there would be no reason to emphasize them. But what makes them difficult?
Monday’s post was about the first sentence: “I don’t know.” The second is “I need help.”
What do we tend to say instead of “I need help”? Sometimes nothing at all. We don’t want to portray ourselves as people who can’t get it all done, and we want to demonstrate that we’re capable, so we don’t ask for help. This is a case when the default intention is so strong that it silences us altogether.
If we’re not totally silenced, we may be so oblique in our request for help that it’s nearly impossible to know that’s what we want.
Recently I said to my husband, “Do you know where the checkbook is?” What I really wanted to say was “I’m overwhelmed. I don’t have time to find the checkbook, find an address, write and mail a check, so I need your help.” Unsurprisingly, he had no idea that I was actually asking him for help, so he answered the question I asked, “It’s probably in the drawer; did you look?” His literal answer to my layered and very obscure plea led to a frustrating argument. Fortunately I realized that there was practically no way he could have understood what I was really asking without reading my mind, and we were able to extract ourselves from the conversation (and get the check mailed.)
The important thing for me to remember is that my unwillingness to say “Can you help me?” has nothing to do with him and everything to do with my default intention “to seem in control.” In that moment, it felt like asking for help, even in this small thing, would indicate that I don’t have it “all together.”
Gamache (or Louise Penny) understands that the unwillingness to confront these default intentions means we can’t communicate clearly. We’re not asking for what we need, and we’re not functioning well as a team. Gamache knows that his team of detectives has to ask for help when they need it, or the whole team can be compromised.
What is on the other side of letting go of these default intentions—“to be in control,” “to have it all together”? And what do we have to gain by leaning into our vulnerability, allowing ourselves to be helped?