I find myself constantly battling helping somebody who is reluctant to learn concepts whenever they ask me for help. They only ever seem to want the result of applying that concept, as opposed to grasping the concept itself.

In addition they also fail to recognise that they are doing this, which makes this all the more challenging. They probably do want to learn the actual concept but just think I am being overly pedantic about it. After I work with them and figure out the solution, I try to explain the process on how I got their, but they seem disinterested and say whatever they think will get me to leave their desk the quickest, after I stopped what I was doing to help them...

This ends up making me frustrated because I dislike task switching and I don't particular like "fishing" for people I guess you could call it. But nonetheless I do have to help this person. So my question is how can you teach somebody to fish when they just want a fish?

  • 1
    so are these coworkers in the same team? different team? do they have the same or similiar job than you do?
    – Benjamin
    Commented Aug 20, 2020 at 8:02
  • 4
    Just for clarity: These are really concepts they need to use more than once in their life? And your job is not to fish (ie you are not a helpdesk worker or similar who is paid to fish for others)?
    – guest
    Commented Aug 20, 2020 at 8:50
  • They just want you to do their work for them. Can you just say "No" or "I have time later"? Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 11:06

6 Answers 6


I would start by trying to find out why this person is acting this way.

My perspective as someone who used to ask for "help" in this way was that I felt overloaded and as if I didn't have enough time to spend learning these things in detail when there were deadlines looming. I was aware that this wasn't going to be useful or productive in the long term, and it was also flagged up in performance reviews and given to me as a goal to work on, and I've since improved.

I don't think there's any harm in being honest with them about it as long as it's not a personal attack. If, like you say, they probably do want to learn these things, then say something like it's ok to spend time learning and that it's expected of any decent employee that wants to progress in their field. Do this in private, one-on-one so you can both be as honest and open as possible.

Something else my company did was to start asking people to explicitly record their time spent helping others, so that it can be factored into the project budget. Everyone is aware of this, and one benefit IMO is that it makes it clear that people's time is precious (since it's directly costing money), so it puts more emphasis on using it wisely. But that could easily be a double-edged sword in that people are overly discouraged to ask for help because others' time is considered too precious.

  • 1
    That's a good point, this person may well believe that fishing is your job not theirs, and that waiting for you to do it for them is the company's preferred procedure, rather than spending a load of time learning something that isn't core to their job, and potentially messing up your system. Commented Aug 20, 2020 at 8:24
  • If this is the situation, and especially if there is more than one person doing this, then it may be a good idea to schedule some time to explicitly explain the concepts you think they need to know. Make it a training session, not a help session. You then set the agenda and you can focus on making sure they understand concepts, rather than just getting the immediate answer to their problem.getting the Commented Aug 20, 2020 at 19:36

Expect, and make the person know that you expect, something done by themself.

When asked for help tell them "Can you show me what you tried until now?" Because why would you try to do something they already done?

If they say nothing, then inform them "I'm a little busy right now, I can give you a fishing rod and then you'll get back to me with what you catch".
And yes, a fishing rod is pointing them out to SE to look for answers. Because that will also make them think about applications. Because the knowledge wil be earned and not given.

  • Great answer. It directly addresses the needs of both the OP and the person they are trying to help. Commented Aug 20, 2020 at 11:36

My take on such topics is, that you create a knowledge database where you write tutorials or explanations for processes where problems occur. This is at the beginning more work for you because you have to write it down but in the long run, you save time and more importantly focus.

Next time when your colleague has a problem which you already solved just point him to the resources.

Instead of giving him every time a new fish, just give him the same one again.

  • 5
    Instead of giving him a new fish, spend time and effort breeding a school of fish ready to hand out on demand? Commented Aug 20, 2020 at 14:51
  • @BittermanAndy Thats a better analogy then mine
    – LaughU
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 6:09
  • This is the correct answer. This has the added benefit of helping multiple people, including yourself. Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 22:19

I was in the same situation once, when an apprentice of mine was that way.

What I did: Ask them questions that make them find their own way to the answer. If they are truly stuck, give them hints where/how to find the solution and let them chew on it. They have to work for the solution harder than you do. And they have to work for the solution harder or wait longer than it would take them to solve it on their own. Only give a solution when they already worked way longer on the problem than it should normally take, as a last resort.

They will probably try to shortcut, asking you for the solution directly. I use a combination of techniques to deflect that. I have not much time right now / I don't know / I could but I won't so they learn.

Then you have two possibilities:

A. They are capable but a bit lazy. They will soon discover that it does not save them work when they ask you and will stop asking.

B. They are not fit for their kind of job. If this is software development we are talking about this is not quite unusual. I guess they will sooner or later learn this is not for them and will settle for something else. Maybe, if you don't see any development in them for some time, an open talk about this is in order?


If you don't want to fish with them or teach them how to fish (or they don't want to learn):

One way is to only ever give them the fish but only when you want. Don't be always available to give a fish, politely decline saying you don't have time for now, you're busy and don't want to be interrupted. Don't forget about them but also do prioritize your time over theirs.

With a bit of luck if it occurs often enough they will either ask someone else or learn to fish themselves.

  • 3
    This really needs to be coupled with the other answers. This person (and their boss) needs to know that that they are supposed to fish for themselves, and have a clear set of instructions, otherwise they'll just wait and blame you for not helping. Commented Aug 20, 2020 at 8:35

I think the first thing is to be sure that you are being generous with the time necessary to teach the "concept". One of the first jobs I ever did was mechanical assembly, on a production line. I was regarded as proficient - at least in excess of my age at the time and lack of prior experience - and a number of unconnected people had said so.

But I still remember one nark who had "shown me once" a reasonably complex procedure, which had all the sleight of hand of a magic trick, and was scarcely willing to show me twice. From what I remember, I could reasonably have expected it to be broken into several separate routines and each shown to me dozens of times, and the situation remained dysfunctional for at least two days until I was simply placed elsewhere.

Another thing is to be sure you have have been sufficiently indulgent for the person (if they are a new or newish employee) to orient themselves and to realise that this is a "concept" they will routinely need to use, that it is more complex than can be reasonably memorised without written reference material, that they have seen what needs to be documented, and that they are not being expected to learn too much or think too hard for themselves whilst fatigued from or harried by the other demands of their work.

Again, I can recall past anecdotes as a much younger worker. Those who have rattled off a seemingly endless list of verbal instructions without prior warning (including one person who continued to do so even after I had warned him, about a third of the way through his monologue, that he had completely lost me).

In another instance, a person reeling off a stream of consciousness whilst operating a computer stopped after a minute to say (slightly scornfully) that he hoped I was writing it down - when I hadn't even the foggiest prior familiarity with what he was describing or where it was all going, nor any possible opportunity to digest and structure what he was telling me.

If you are quite sure that the problem is dependency or laziness, and not just a normal need for training, then the solution in mild cases is the same as for genuine ignorance and inexperience. If the person approaches for help, then you say "let's have a look" and return to their workstation with them, and then ask "where are you getting stuck?". If you are explaining something for the umpteenth time, then the question could be "is it worth me writing a stepwise procedure?". A person in genuine need will appreciate this sort of attention and effort gladly given, whereas the merely lazy person will not appreciate the hassle of the interaction and their increasing appearance as an unproductive fool.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .