An undervalued skill – in memory of Emma

Posted on by Nancy Slessenger This entry was posted in Change management, Communication, Emotional Intelligence, Leaderhip skills, Management Skills and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

I recently heard a programme about people in Japan who are having the deal with the aftermath of the devastation there, both from the Tsunami and from the nuclear fallout.

The village

In a small village the survivors are rebuilding their homes and lives. But because of a strong culture on the etiquette of giving and receiving, not everyone is willing to accept help.

They believe that you must always give something in return for anything you receive. (Of course, this is how society works in the main.)

Unfortunately there are times when you are simply not in a position to give anything in return, but you still need help.


This week would have been the 54th birthday of my dear cousin, Emma. Sadly she passed away before she could celebrate it.

There were so many things to admire about Emma. She never forgot a birthday and was immensely thoughtful in her presents. Even as she lay on her deathbed, she sent us a card enclosing a cheque. In the card apologised for not being able to buy us a present for our wedding anniversary.

She was always the one to help everyone else when they needed it, in her pragmatic and down-to-earth way.

She had an amazing memory, a ready wit, a needle sharp intellect, and huge generosity – I could go on. But I am going to focus on a particular skill often ignored.

Asking for and receiving help

It’s often very hard, when you have been independent and supremely capable for most of your life, to realise that the time has come to ask for help.

In her illness and Emma let us all help her and made it easy for us to do so.

Recognising change

The ability to recognise that the situation has changed and that you must change your strategy is quite rare. It’s even more difficult when there are cultural rules and norms telling you the opposite.

In this situation as in every other, she was completely practical. When she was first ill, she sent emails asking if anyone had CDs of her favourite books she could borrow to make the chemotherapy more bearable. This gave the rest of us an opportunity to do something we knew would be of value. I have no doubt she received many.

Her job

When I met some of her lovely colleagues at the funeral I was able to find out more about her work. Not surprisingly, much of it involved helping others. She would give them advice in the complex legal matters in which she was an expert.


Even in this extremely difficult situation, she quipped merrily about no longer having to worry out all the problems with her pension. She was a tremendous example to those of us who get a bit grumpy at the slightest excuse.


She did, of course, have weaknesses. One of them (which I share – it must be genetic) was for puddings. So I smuggled in some of Waitrose’s finest, which we happily dug in to together in her last weeks.

How she remained resolutely slim all her life is quite beyond me.

A strength

Some seem to regard accepting help as a weakness and would never dream of asking for help for themselves, instead struggling needlessly with problems that could be easily solved.

Perhaps this is because some people think that you should be able to do everything yourself. Or it may be because we sometimes regard those who take without giving as scroungers. (And I’m sure there are cases when this is true.)

However, we also need to recognise that there are times when accepting help is the right thing to do, and refusing help is an injury to all concerned.

Asking for help

And there are also times when asking for help is the right and most sensible thing to do.
Yes, of course it is always good to give something in return, but when you have nothing concrete to give, allowing others to give is, in itself, your gift. Its value may be greater than you imagine.

In memory of Emma Jane Slessenger 1958 – 2012

“Where shall we see a better daughter, or a kinder sister, or a truer friend?” Jane Austen “Emma”.

19 Responses to “An undervalued skill – in memory of Emma”

  1. Catherine Gasparini
    March 20, 2012 at 10:36 am

    A beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing.

  2. alan newbury
    March 20, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    Thank you, Nancy. Thought-provoking and pithy as usual, but human and moving too; quite rare in “professional” blogging, I think. Thank you for this fitting tribute to Emma; I hope many learn these valuable lessons (including me; bit too self sufficient for my own good!) Alan.

    • March 23, 2012 at 9:33 am

      Hi Alan
      Many thanks for your feedback. I’m sure you have learned many of these lessons yourself.

  3. March 20, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Very poignant Nancy, thank you. I share the same weakness and (hopefully) the same strength.

  4. Anne-Marie Harrison
    March 20, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    A very special person indeed….as ever you put your finger on what really counts in life.

  5. Rod Heath
    March 20, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    An inspiring piece. As you say, it’s hard to recognise change and go against what we perceive to be norms but sometimes, I think, this is necessary for your own good or for the benefit of others.
    Emma was clearly special.

  6. Carlos De Jesus
    March 20, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    All I could say is WOW. Very touching and inspiring. It is great to have someone teach us even when they are down. Wonderful person

  7. March 20, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    This started me reflecting on my own childhood, where in the small town I lived everyone would come and knock on our door for my mother. If a baby was due and the professionals couldn’t be contacted, if someone was ill, if there was a death, or just someone to talk to they always called for Gwynneth.
    She was afraid of the phone and couldn’t understand how she could hear you and you were miles away. She had her first washing machine with a manual mangle when I was about 10 years old. Her hearing was poor, she taught herself to lip read, so we as kids got away with nothing. She taught me all the skills of the house but also taught me that life was for living and to do the very best I could, so that I could do the very best for others. Unfortunately I didn’t have my mother long enough she past away at 47 years old when I was just 19years. I remember most of what she taught me I wish I was as tolerant of others as she was.

    • March 23, 2012 at 9:34 am

      Dear Christine
      What a lovely person your mother must have been – and very strong too from the sound of things. Thank you so much for sharing her with us.

  8. pedrito
    March 20, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    just got goosebumps all over my body upon reading this humble and simple masterpiece…..people are at times fearful of thier weakness may get recognize…..yet not knowing that such a weakness means strenght……..I thank you EMMA for letting me know, that by asking help is not a weakness, but a strong indicator of character well-established on holistic personhood, who is never selfish……..and by now, I wish be there to that state so soon…..

    • March 23, 2012 at 9:37 am

      Hi Pedrito
      Thank you for this. Just yesterday I was remembering some of the things Emma gave me over the years. One of them was a house-warming present of a set of useful implements; tin-opener, garlic press and, unbelievable useful – a device for opening stubborn screw-top lids. It has come to my rescue many times over the last 30 years.
      It will remain a great tribute to Emma, always ready to help out.

  9. Rose
    March 20, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    Recently I was in a position to ask for help (counselling) and I can testify the wonders it did me, not to mention the burden that was lifted off my shoulders. Great read and it must have been quite inspirational to know people like Emma!

    • March 23, 2012 at 9:38 am

      Hi Rose
      Yes, she was inspirational. But she was so down-to-earth she made it seem entirely natural and easy.

  10. David Stuart
    March 21, 2012 at 8:42 am

    Great, heartfelt post Nancy. My sympathies for the loss of your cousin Emma.

    What you say about opening yourself up to help is so true.

    It’s often a great relief to let down your barriers and just accept help sometimes. It can benefit both giver and receiver.

    • March 23, 2012 at 9:39 am

      Hi David
      Yes, and for many of us (I include myself) it’s not always easy. But worth a try.

  11. Kasim Ansari
    March 21, 2012 at 11:58 am

    Hi Nancy,

    Sorry to hear that news, and wishing her soul to get the peace with good place in Heaven.
    I went though your blog and i liked it very much. Genuinely, in today life everybody expecting from other to get something in return. As per my thought people don’t forget to God because he is looking what you are doing for others and what is the return of it. my knowledge tell that if you are getting the chance to help others, go ahead, live the rest of thing on God because he is the best. he only have the authority and power to return in repsect of help.


  12. Sue
    March 23, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    A moving story Nancy and one which resonates with me due to my fiercely independent nature. During a 1:1 coaching session when discussing my independence, I was asked how I thought my team felt about this and had I thought that they may want to help but felt they couldn’t because I never asked. A thought provoking challenge. I love helping people and giving others the opportunity to help me is something I need to work on.

  13. January 2, 2013 at 10:54 am

    Very thought provoking and moving tribute, Nancy.

    I fully appreciate its sentiments as I have always been the helper and independent thinker/actor for everyone. I do think it is difficult to ask for help and reach out in times of need and not everyone appreciates the change in approach even whilst acknowledging the situation has changed to prompt this.

    I also believe that many people are ‘givers’ in life and others ‘recipients’ – I prefer this to ‘takers’ – even occasionally changing role or behaviour prompts different responses from others, some of which can be difficult to deal with when we might be particularly vulnerable (yet afraid of admitting this)

    There’s a great little book ‘what can I do to help?’ offering other instances where just being a shoulder, ear, good friend, baking/cooking nice items as you did can bring normality (if such a thing exists) at such times when fortitude is required and reminds us all that we’re still the same people underneath irrespective of what might be happening to our health. Allowing people to just ‘be’ is a great gift – so do keep hold of this quality.

    Hopefully you’re able, as this post demonstrates, to celebrate all the good things she meant to you and the difference she made in yours and others’ lives and appreciate that for many of us, our legacy will be how our lives touched or affected others for better or worse.

    Wishing you all the very best for 2013. May her memories live on in your heart and mind – that way she and her legacy will remain with you …a great tribute

    • Nancy Slessenger
      January 10, 2013 at 10:04 am

      Many thanks Janette
      I certainly won’t forget Emma. For the first time this year there was no card from her and we celebrated Christmas without her. But we can remember the good times and the contribution she made with happiness.