One of the most common questions in coaching and mentoring is “Who can you get to support you in achieving this goal?” When people struggle to respond, as is often the case, or feel that they are on their own, it may indicate that they haven’t invested sufficiently in creating their community of support. Research in recent years into what makes people support each other (through projects such as the international Human Generosity Project) provide useful clues on how we build strong communities of support.

Knowing lots of people doesn’t create a support network. You can have thousands of friends on Facebook or connections on Linked In, but that doesn’t mean you have the kind of relationship with them that will cause them to respond to your request for help. It’s the quality of the relationships that count and the key to this appears to be your own generosity towards others.

It turns out that expecting reciprocity isn’t how the system works. In less modernised societies, members of communities support each other in case of need, without any expectation of payback. Having a positive reputation as someone who helps others in need increases the chances that others will be generous towards you, if you are in future need, but it may not be the people you helped, who will then help you. In an article examining current research in this area[1], Bob Holmes cites several examples of the generosity concept, including the Masai tradition of osotua (literally, umbilical cord) where anyone in need can ask for and automatically receive help from their network of friends and neighbours.

The limitation of these concepts in practice is that this kind of generosity is dependent on knowing the recipient as an individual. By contrast, in developed societies, where there is often less sense of community, people tend to be generous towards distant groups, such as victims of famine or earthquake, but less likely to give to beggars on the local streets.

So what are the implications of this for helping coachees or mentees build their own communities of support? A generosity-based strategy involves four steps:

  • Identifying the communities, which you are already a part of or would value being part of
  • Establishing what needs members of these communities have, which you can help with. These needs aren’t usually monetary; they are more commonly information, encouragement, moral support, connections or access to resources
  • Allocating time (planned or ad hoc) to be generous – giving of time is often seen as a particularly generous act
  • Being brave in admitting when you need help and asking for it

If people in these communities know you as someone who is appropriately generous, then at least some of them will respond positively.

Some useful coaching/ mentoring questions include:

  • How does knowing you affect other people’s willingness to support you?
  • What could you do to ensure that people, whose support you need, know and value you?
  • Who is there around those people, whose positive opinion of you would influence those people you want to be more supportive of you?
  • How can you build your reputation as someone generous with their time, knowledge etc?
  • How can you make others aware of your needs for support? (What’s stopping you from asking?)
  • How could you be more generous to yourself?


© David Clutterbuck, 2016

[1] Holmes, Bob (2016) Generous by nature, New Scientist 13 August pp26-28

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