Interpersonal Edge: Navigating unhelpful ‘help’ lines

Dr. Daneen Skube

By Dr. Daneen Skube
Tribune Content Agency

Q:I spend half my work life waiting on hold for helplines just to get through to the wrong person. At the end of my workday, I want to rip my hair out. The more technically oriented our workplaces get the more I wade through phone or online systems that make me crazy. How can I maintain my sanity on help systems that offer more frustration than assistance?

A: You can maintain your sanity wading through technical help systems if you lower your expectations…nope lower…not quite…lower yet, okay now you are almost there. When you’re on hold or in online chat systems, you have minimal access to real people. If you expect your experience will be lengthy, complicated, and require multiple calls you’ll get less upset.

When we have a problem, we hope we can ask for help and wham help will occur. Technology has solved many problems but created others. The buzz phrase for technology for a long time was high-tech and high-touch. Instead, we experience every day that what may be high-tech has lost much of its high-touch experience.

Companies are attempting to make tech interfaces more user friendly. However, most consumers of “help” lines end up with long waits listening to music intended to calm us while we grind our teeth. Then when we get a half asleep and indifferent helper, we’re ready to blow up.

As I write this I’m on hold at the same time with customer service from both the Bank of America and Fred Meyer to fix a mistake. It is 7:03 a.m. and I have been mostly on hold talking to people who have not fixed the problem since 4 a.m.!

I also wrote four of my columns, balanced my checkbook, wrote emails, wrote checks, and got ready for my day. At present I’ve created a conference call by having the bank on my cell phone and Fred Meyer on my home phone so they have to talk to one another. Note: I still didn’t get anyone to fix the problem.

When I started this journey at 4 a.m., I started working on my projects. I knew it would be a long, inefficient process. I also was appreciative and complimentary with each representative so they were encouraged to be helpful back.

When we get mad because of these user-unfriendly processes we often take it out on the humans best positioned to help us. Yes, there are times, like this morning, when you get nowhere. Then, again, while waiting, I had a highly productive morning.

Schedule your time so you have plenty of tasks with which to occupy your mind. Then the background music can be a soft sound track to your productivity. If you get any help from someone within the system that can be the cherry on top your efficient sundae.

When someone does answer remember charm, patience, and gratitude will be evocative of the most help that person can offer. If you get someone surly or unresponsive, diplomatically let them go, and get back in line for another representative.

As our world turns to artificial intelligence, we lose the richness of personal connection. Machines cannot and never will replace the interpersonal experience of a human helping another human. Make your time on helplines helpful to you rather than drumming your fingers while waiting. Lower your expectations. Finally, be kind to the human that finally shows up and offers help.

Daneen Skube, Ph.D., executive coach, trainer, therapist and speaker, also appears as the FOX Channel’s “Workplace Guru” each Monday morning. She’s the author of “Interpersonal Edge: Breakthrough Tools for Talking to Anyone, Anywhere, About Anything” (Hay House, 2006). Contact Dr. Skube at or 1420 NW Gilman Blvd., #2845, Issaquah, WA 98027. No personal replies.