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How to Respond When You Can't Help

Community Manager

It seems at times that the larger or more popular a community becomes, the more off-topic questions or topics it attracts. Some of them are things where the person just couldn't be bothered to find the right location for their question or idea and wants someone else to do the work for them. Some of them are so obscure or esoteric that there may not be a place where that kind of concept would be appropriate. But a very few of them are sincere and important requests for assistance that are things that nobody in your community is qualified or able to address. This is how I've traditionally handled these kinds of requests for assistance.

 

"I've been hacked!" and other pleas

 

There are all kinds of online threats that even tech savvy people, let alone the general public, aren't typically qualified to deal with: SWATting, stalking, hacking, harassment, and more. Sadly, the same technologies that democratize things like broadcasting and publishing, and disrupt traditional industries, can also be used to crowdsource harassment and terrorism. The victims of these attacks sometimes reach out to any tech adjacent community in the hopes of finding someone, anyone, who can and is willing to help. I've handled or assisted with handling requests for help with hacked computers and devices, seemingly slanderous (and presumably soon-to-be-ex) spouses, stalking and harassment campaigns, and even what appeared to be credible threats of self-harm.

 

How to address them

 

The formula I follow is a tried and true one: strive first to listen and then to be heard. I use this general outline:

 

  1. Express sympathy
  2. State what I heard
  3. State clearly that what I heard is not something I can help with
  4. Suggest possible resources or avenues of assistance

 

People in vulnerable positions like these are often brushed off, invalidated, or disbelieved. Because of this, and especially because you are not the right person to help, it is very important to convey that you have heard what they are saying, that you sympathize, and that you want to get them assistance. Without this first step of building trust, they may ignore any suggestions you give that could help them. Expressions of sympathy could be: "I'm sorry that you're having to go through this," or "I'm sorry that you're having such an agonizing experience."

 

They are in a tough position and are feeling overwhelmed, so they may not be speaking or writing clearly. It is therefore also important to repeat and rephrase your understanding of what their situation is. Phrases like, "It sounds like you're dealing with ...", "What I'm hearing is ...", or "You're running into ..., is my understanding correct?" are the type of feeling you want to convey. You want to, rhetorically at least, place the responsibility of understanding what they're talking about squarely on your own shoulders. This shows that you are trying to understand them, not forcing them to justify you spending your time on them.

 

Once this rapport is, hopefully, established, boundaries have to be clearly stated. After all, they are asking for something that you can't, won't, or aren't allowed to give. Those who are desperate for assistance may, like a drowning victim, grab for and cling to any hope of help. Stating clearly and plainly that you are not someone that will be able to fix their problem is how you hold them metaphorically at arm's length but keep them listening. I say things like, "Unfortunately, I can't do anything to help with ...", or "I'm afraid that I'm unable to do anything about ...".

Finally, directing them to someone who can help with what you understand is needed is paramount. Keep in mind that the technology part may not be what they really need help with; the threat may be more offline even if it is conveyed online. I keep a list of resources for various situations:

 

 

And if it sounds like legal assistance is what is needed, I simply state, "You may want to contact legal counsel to help understand your rights."

 

Conclusion

 

As much as you might want to help someone clearly in need, directing them to professional, proven resources is often a far better policy. Conversely, how to handle someone who is obviously vulnerable and desperate is often not something that comes naturally and is rarely something that community managers or tech support people are trained to deal with. Compassionately suggesting that you can't help them with the problem they're experiencing is challenging and sometimes more than a little stressful. This is what I've found works a lot of the time and I hope that if you encounter people who require these kinds of assistance it will help you aid them quickly and sympathetically.

 

Have you encountered someone who was being victimized in a way that you couldn't help with? How did you help them get someplace they could find assistance? Let us know in the comments 💖