Dear Lifehacker, My family is always calling me for tech support when I'm busy and keeps a list of the big problems for when I'm home to visit. I'm tired of fixing the same problems over and over again. They never seem to learn. What can I do?Thanks, Unwilling Tech Support Guy
Photo: slworking2, Flickr
There are a few things you can do and they come down to teaching, practice and tough love. With a good amount of each, you should have no trouble weaning your family off your assistance.
You'll still have to help them sometimes — as you should, since they probably help you with non-tech-related things here and there — but you can use those moments to your advantage. This is what I did with my family and I'm happy to report they're much more self-sufficient. Here's how you can get your family to be the same.
Don't Do: Teach
Every time a family member asks you for help, offer that help on one condition: you show them how to solve the problem and they implement the solution themselves. It's like the old proverb says: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." You need to teach your family to fish.
This can be frustrating, especially at first. Most family members will be resistant to learning any technical skills since they've had you do everything for them for so long. They may ever prefer to never learn because they only use the computer out of necessity. It may be difficult, but you need to be firm. You also need to be patient. They'll get frustrated in the beginning and you'll have to explain things slowly and simply. Eventually they will learn and they'll remember, but that will only happen if you show enough patience and encouragement. You have to forget the years of annoying tech questions and help them understand what needs to be done.
And have them do everything, too. They won't learn as well if you show them how to, say, burn a DVD. Hold their hand through the process so they can do it themselves. The act of doing will make it easier for them to remember.
Make Them Practise The Basics
When you're physically with your family and can help them on the computer, set up some time to practise. You really only need about 15-30 minutes for each session, and you don't need to have these sessions often. Pick some basic skills they need to learn (e.g. copy and paste, sending a photo in an email, updating software, etc) and demonstrate how they work. Watch them practise and answer any questions they have during the process. Have them repeat what you demonstrate several times so they get used to the actions. They might not like it, but they'll remember it.
When you're not around, you can also use screencasting software to make them a video that demonstrates a particular skill they need to learn. You can then watch them practice remotely using a tool like VNC or LogMeIn. Set up a time every week or two to do this and it shouldn't take long before they learn the basics. If you don't have time to make videos every week, we can help you out. Our Lifehacker 101 posts offer plenty of beginner how-tos, often with video, so you can just be there to hold their hand during practice without the need to create the lesson.
Sometimes you just won't have time to help and you'll need to use a little tough love. In these cases, it's OK to say no. They need to get used to the idea that you won't always be around to help. If you do have some time, however, it's good to suggest how they can try to find the solution themselves. Sometimes this just means telling them what to search for in Google or providing a URL to a site that can help them learn how to solve the problem. Most people get overwhelmed and think they can't solve a problem because they simply don't know where to start. If you provide that starting block, it may still be hard for your family members but they'll at least have a better chance of figuring things out on their own. Ultimately, that's the best way for them to learn and it will save you the most time.
Overall, this process puts a lot of burden on you in the beginning. You'll have to work hard and spend more of your time teaching them the skills they need. The upside, however, is that they will learn and you'll save yourself much more time in the long run. If you're patient and understanding, you'll only end up with tech support calls when the difficult problems arise.
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This article has been updated since its original publication.