“Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help” by Edgar Schein is a concise, definitive analysis of what it takes to establish successful, mutually satisfying helping relationships both in the personal sphere and professional work environment.
This post is a collection of the notes I took as I was reading the book.
What is Helping?
Helping is a very broad concept ranging all the way from the knight in shining armor rescuing the maiden before she is eaten by the dragon to the consultant working with an organization to change its culture to meet new strategic objectives or to improve its performance. From a client perspective, help includes not only what we ask for, but also the spontaneous and generous behavior of others who recognize when we need help even if we have not asked for it.
Three Types of Help
- What is the client’s contextual situation?Informal – in the routine of daily life, help is the action of one person that enables another person to solve a problem, to accomplish something, or to make something easier. Help is thus the process that underlies cooperation, collaboration, and many forms of altruistic behavior.
- Semi-formal – where we go to technicians of various sorts to get help with our houses, cars, computers, and audio-visual equipment. Here we require help in making something work, are less involved personally, and pay for the service or information.
- Formal – this type of help is needed when we are in some kind of personal, health, or emotional difficulty and need medical, legal, or spiritual assistance from someone licensed to provide such assistance. We go to doctors, lawyers, priests, counselors, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists for individual attention.
Though helping is a relationship, the process of offering, giving, or receiving semi-formal or formal help usually starts with individual initiative:
- The first thing to focus on, therefore, is how personal initiative leads to a relationship. If we understand the dynamics of building any relationship, we can build a more effective helping relationship.
- The second fundamental cultural principle is that all relationships in human cultures are to a large degree based on scripted roles that we learn to play early in life and which become so automatic that we are often not even conscious of them.
Personal and Intimate Relationships
We build intimate relationships in part to create situations in which we can confirm and increase our sense of self-esteem because we can claim more value for ourselves and count on it being accepted and affirmed.
Trust has two components that derive from social economics. Trusting another person means that:
- Whatever value I claim for myself in interactions with that person will be understood and accepted.
- The other person will not take advantage of me or use my revealed information to my disadvantage.
In the beginning, every helping relationship is in a state of imbalance. The client is one down and therefore vulnerable; the helper is one up and therefore powerful. Much of what goes wrong in the helping process is the failure to acknowledge this initial imbalance and deal with it.
Five Possible Traps for the Client
- Initial mistrust. Will the helper be willing and able to help? Such caution is normal and appropriate but may cause the client to hide the real problem at first. Instead, the cautious client may float some hypothetical dilemma to determine how responsive or sympathetic the helper will be.
- Relief. Having finally shared the problem with someone else who may be able to help, the client certainly relieved. Along with that often comes a welcome sense of dependency and subordination to the helper, which can become a trap if the solution to the problem requires effort from the client.
- Looking for attention, reassurance and/or validation instead of help. Helpers have to be particularly sensitive to persons who ask for help but who really want something entirely different. Not everyone who asks for help is actually seeking it, but “help” may be a convenient word for whatever is being sought. Since it is not socially appropriate to say, “Pay attention to me,” we can force someone to give us attention by asking for help because that request imposes an obligation to respond. Sometimes the potential client has already defined the problem and worked out a solution, but wants confirmation, positive evaluation, maybe even praise. This often happens in organizations where the consultant is hired to develop a program only to discover that the client already has one and wants the consultant to bless it.
- Resentment and defensiveness. The client may look for opportunities to make the helper look inept. This reaction is most likely if the helper has already fallen into the trap of giving premature or irrelevant guidance, which may lead the client to belittle the advice, point out how immaterial it is, note that it has already been tried and did not work, or in other ways pull the helper down to regain a sense of parity.
- Stereotyping, unrealistic expectations, and transference of perceptions. Everyone has past experiences with helpers, which color their feelings and perceptions. It is intrinsically difficult to see a here-and-now new helper in a neutral way, but these biases are initially hidden, so the helper can only infer them as the relationship evolves. The client’s projections onto the helper are sometimes based on deeper and unconscious feelings that initially neither the helper nor the client may be aware of. The helper may be perceived as a friendly or unfriendly parent, or resemble a loved or hated teacher from the past, and so on.
Six Possible Traps for the Helper
- Dispensing wisdom prematurely. Giving advice too soon puts the client even further down. This response also implies that the helper assumes the problem presented is indeed the real problem, ignoring the possibility that the client is just testing the helper by floating a substitute.
- Meeting defensiveness with more pressure. The helper often assumes that the client has revealed the actual problem and has the skills and abilities to follow through with the offered solution. Once the helper has fallen into this trap, it is very tempting to try to convince the client that whatever advice or recommendation has been given is likely to be correct and, therefore, needs to be argued and explained until it is understood. Helpers have found out, to their dismay, that this can be a path of destruction to the relationship because it frustrates both client and helper.
- Accepting the problem and over-reacting to the dependence. When someone rapidly agrees to take on the helper role and exudes confidence, it encourages the client to be dependent before really knowing whether the helper will be of assistance.
- Giving support and reassurance. Sometimes it may be inappropriate to give support and may reinforce the client’s subordinate status.
- Resisting taking on the helper role. This response is the most subtle because helpers are often not aware that their efforts to be objective and avoid the above traps lead them into being so emotionally aloof that they convey an unwillingness to get involved at all. Emotional distance is often thought to be appropriate where formal professional help is sought because it reinforces the image of the objectivity of the helper.
- Stereotyping, a priori expectations, “counter-transference,” and projections. The helper is subject to all of these based on previous experiences. The client may resemble a person in a past relationship, leading the helper unconsciously to treat the present client in the same manner as an earlier one. Psychotherapists talk with feeling about the difficulty of treating a patient who stimulates dislike or even disgust. The issue then becomes whether the helper is willing to expend the time and energy to find out whether the initial reaction, positive or negative, is realistic and how it might ultimately affect the possibility of providing help.
Five Things the Helper Does Not Know at the Beginning
- Will the client understand the information, advice, or questions being asked?
- Will the client have the knowledge and skill necessary to follow the helper’s recommendation?
- What is the client’s real motivation?
- What is the client’s contextual situation?
- How do clients’ experiences shape expectations, stereotypes, and fears?
Five Things the Client Does Not Know at the Beginning
- Does the helper have the knowledge, skill, and motivation to help?
- What consequences will result from asking this person for help?
- Can the client trust the helper not to use the situation to sell something or exert control inappropriately?
- As the client, will I be able to do what is suggested?
- What will it cost financially, emotionally and socially to accept the help?
Three fundamentally different ways for the helper to respond immediately after being asked for help
The helper can choose to be:
- An expert resource who provides information or services.
- A doctor who diagnoses and prescribes.
- A process consultant who focuses on building an equitable relationship and clarifies what kind of help is needed.
ROLE 1. The Expert Resource Role: Provide Information or Service
The likelihood that this role will actually provide help depends on the following:
- Whether or not the client has correctly diagnosed the problem.
- Whether or not the client has clearly communicated this to the helper.
- Whether or not the client has accurately assessed the capabilities of the helper to provide the information or the service.
- Whether or not the client has thought through the consequences of having the helper gather such information and/or implementing the recommended changes.
- Whether or not there is an external reality that can be objectively studied and turned into information the client can use.
ROLE 2. The Doctor Role: Diagnose and Prescribe
The degree to which the doctor model will work will depend on the following:
- Whether or not the client is motivated to reveal accurate information.
- Whether or not the client accepts and believes the diagnosis and prescription.
- Whether or not the consequences of doing the diagnostic processes are accurately understood
- Whether or not the client is able to make the changes that are recommended.
- Whether or not the increased amount of client dependency is a factor in aiding or hindering the ultimate solution.
ROLE 3 . The Process Consultant Role
The adoption of the process consultant role rests on the following set of assumptions:
- Clients, whether they are managers, friends, colleagues, students, spouses, children, etc., often do not know what is really wrong and need help in diagnosing what their problems actually are. But only they own and live with the problem.
- Clients often do not know what kinds of help consultants can give to them; they need guidance to know what kinds of help to seek.
- Most clients have a constructive intent to improve things but need help in identifying what to improve and how to improve it.
- Only clients know what will ultimately work in their situation.
- Unless clients learn to see problems for themselves and think through their own remedies, they will be less likely to implement the solution and less likely to learn how to fix such problems should they recur.
- The ultimate function of help is to pass on diagnostic skills and intervene constructively so that clients are more able to continue to improve their situations on their own.
The Central Proposition of Helping
Any helping situation must begin with the helper adopting the process consultant role in order to do the following:
- Remove the ignorance inherent in the situation.
- Lessen the initial status differential.
- Identify what further role may be most suitable to the problem identified.
It is the helper who must enter this dynamic in a supportive, giving, ego-enhancing way. The first intervention must always be what I am calling humble inquiry, even if the inquiry is merely careful observation and listening in the first few moments of the encounter. The critical point is not to stereotype the situation even if it looks like something familiar.
By asking for further information the helper is doing three important things:
- Building up the client’s status by giving him or her the role of knowing something important.
- Conveying interest and emotional commitment to the situation, which encourages the building of a relationship, however temporary it may be.
- Getting crucial information, which enables the helper to figure out what to do next.
Forms of Inquiry
There are four fundamentally different kinds of inquiry:
- Pure inquiry.
- Diagnostic inquiry.
- Confrontational inquiry.
- Process-oriented inquiry.
The pure inquiry process has several purposes: to build up the client’s status and confidence; to create a situation for the client in which it is safe to reveal anxiety, information, and feelings; to gather as much information as possible about the situation; and to involve the client in the process of diagnosis and action planning.
Paradoxically, pure inquiry starts with silence. The helper should convey through body language and eye contact a readiness to listen, but need not say anything.
In response to whatever the client begins to report, pure inquiry means the usual attentive head-nodding, the occasional grunt or other acknowledgment that the helper is following the story, and, if needed, further prompts such as “Go on,” “Tell me a bit more about that,” “What happened next?” and so on.
To summarize, the client’s story must be fully revealed, or else the helper cannot get a realistic sense of what is going on, and pure inquiry must be managed in such a way that the client begins to think diagnostically and in terms of realistic action alternatives.
In this form of inquiry, the helper begins to influence the client’s mental process by deliberately focusing on issues other than the ones the client chose to report. These kinds of questions do not influence the content of the story, but they focus attention on elements within the story. In the simple example of asking for directions, pure inquiry would be “Where are you trying to get?” whereas diagnostic inquiry would be some version of the following questions: “Why are you going there?” “How have you tried to get there so far?” or “How does it feel to be lost in Boston?”
Four different versions of this redirection are available:
- Feelings and Reactions. This focuses the client on feelings and reactions in response to the events described or the problems that have been identified.
- Causes and Motives. Asking questions and hypothesizing about causes will focus the clients on their own motivations for seeking help and uncover why things might have happened the way they did in the story.
- Actions Taken or Contemplated. This form of inquiry focuses clients on what they and others in the story did, are thinking about doing, or plan to do in the future. If the client has already reported actions, the helper can build on that; but often the story will not reveal past, present, or planned future actions either by the client or others involved in the story.
- Systemic Questions. Clients’ stories typically involve other people—family members, friends, bosses, colleagues, and/or subordinates. Stories and problems are usually embedded in human systems. The helper may decide that it is important to know how the client perceives the reactions or actions of other members of the system and may, therefore, ask what family therapists would consider being systemic or circular questions. If the presented problem involves other people, each of the above questions can be elaborated by asking the client to think about what particular others are feeling, thinking about, or doing in relation to what the client is talking about.
The essence of confrontational inquiry is that the helper now interjects into the conversation his or her own ideas about the process or content of the story. Instead of merely encouraging the client to elaborate, the helper now makes suggestions or offers options that may not have occurred to the client. Such interventions represent taking on more of an expert or doctor role and must therefore only be used when the helper feels that enough trust and equity in the relationship has been established to make valid communication possible. However, that need not take very long. I have found myself in many situations where I could move into the expert or doctor role almost immediately, either because I already had a relationship with the client or observed an adequate level of trust.
An option that is always on the table is to shift the focus from the client’s process or content to a focus on the here-and-now interaction occurring between client and helper. Just how this might be worded depends very much on the actual situation, but the intent is to make the client conscious that there is an interaction going on, and that it can be analyzed.
Some Criteria for When to Use Which Type of Inquiry
In order to build the client’s confidence and demonstrate a willingness to be influenced, it is best for the helper to start with pure inquiry and only move to diagnostic or confrontational questions as the client demonstrates in words or actions a level of trust.
If one starts with pure inquiry, information tends to surface quickly and the client is put into a position to recover from the one-down position.
The steps the helper can take next are then a function of the answers to the following four sets of questions as the interaction continues:
- How do I feel about the communication process between the client and me? Do I feel reasonably relaxed? Am I getting the story of what is bothering the client? There is no formal way to answer this question. It is a matter of feelings based on careful observation of the
client’s behavior, tone of voice, and body language. If I sense that I am not getting the whole story I should be cautious and stay in the pure inquiry mode.
- How much time do we have? Is it an emergency situation where I should guess what is needed before I have enough information? If I feel that time may be an issue, I could ask
a process-oriented question such as “Are you under time pressure to solve this problem?” or “Can we postpone thinking of a solution until we have talked more?”.
- What is my relationship with the client? In a formal relationship where the client assumes that I know what I am doing and have professional training in helping, I would stay in the pure inquiry mode longer. In an informal friendship or with my spouse I would be more prepared to risk a diagnostic, confrontational, or process-oriented question because I could assume that a certain level of trust is already present. If the nature of the relationship is ambiguous, or if the helpers are commercial helpers who may or may not have been trained, the pure inquiry would seem to be desirable unless time pressure or the nature of the problem requires instant action.
- What does my here-and-now diagnostic sense tell me would be the most useful focus for the client right now? Is enough of the story out in a credible way that I should focus the client on some joint diagnostic inquiry? Should I ask the client a confrontational question? Is it time for an interpretation or suggestion for action?
If I reasonably decide that leaping in with an idea is appropriate, there are two other criteria to consider:
- Constructive opportunism.
- Situational propriety.
Pure inquiry biases the interaction toward going with the flow, and that must be balanced by constructive opportunism. The major criterion for when to seize an opportunity to shift focus is when the client has said something that has obvious significance to the story and that is vivid enough to be remembered. In other words, a shift in focus or role should be clearly linked to something the client said, not merely to the helper’s thoughts or feelings. Especially in deciding when to switch from pure inquiry into the diagnostic or confrontational mode, timing is therefore crucial.
What is an appropriate response for the helper will also vary with the circumstances? Therefore, it is difficult to make rules about how to respond. Sensing and feeling inevitably come into play in assessing the state of the relationship and the situation. However, the helper’s intent should always be to build status or to give face. The helper must get to know the client’s areas of vulnerability and sensitivity, and either avoid them or deal with them in a sympathetic manner.
Teamwork as Perpetual Reciprocal Helping
Sustained team performance clearly involves trust that the others will continue to perform their roles over time. Nothing hurts a team more than a member letting down the team by suddenly not showing up or not performing. And social economics come into play as well. As a member of a group, you must feel that what you give is fairly compensated in terms of what you get. Not every member will have the same status, but all members must have some status commensurate with their contributions.
From this point of view one can define an effective team as one in which each member helps the others by performing his or her role appropriately so that equity is felt by all and mutual trust remains high even when performance pressures are great. In other words, the essence of teamwork is the development and maintenance of reciprocal helping relationships among all the members.
How Is Teamwork Achieved?
I am defining teamwork as a state of multiple reciprocal helping relationships including all the members of the group that have to work together. Building a team therefore is not just creating one client/helper relationship, but simultaneously building one among all the members. The sensitive team leader is aware that in any new group all new members must work out their relationships with each other and with the formal authority. Time and resources must be devoted to allowing these relationships to be built.
Before members can become helpful to each other, the leader must help them deal with four fundamental psychological issues:
- Who am I to be? What is my role in this group?
- How much control/influence will I have in this group?
- Will my goals/needs be met in this group?
- What will be the level of intimacy in this group?
The leader developing the team must be aware that until members feel comfortable around the four questions, they will be preoccupied and anxious, and will therefore not give full attention to the actual task that is to be performed.
Leaders have to provide time for these questions to resolve themselves, which is why groups often begin with informal activities such as dinners or joint sports activities. This gives them the opportunity to become acquainted prior to having to perform as a team.
It is critical for the group to review its early performances for two reasons:
- To analyze the performance itself and identify what went well and what needs to be improved.
- To allow for further role-testing and negotiation.
This kind of communication to review progress toward the goal of effective team performance is properly called feedback. Giving and receiving feedback can be viewed as crucial communication in a helping relationship, especially in a group context.
To summarize, an effective team can be characterized as having members who know their roles and who feel comfortable in those roles because they feel that what they contribute, in the way of performance, and what they get back, in the way of formal and informal rewards, is equitable. In that sense they are helping each other and the team as a whole.
Task Contingencies Define Types of Mutual Help
What defines help in a team situation is the actual task that the team performs and the degree to which the team members are interdependent.
High performance in simultaneous interdependence is not just an accumulation of individual skills, but the degree to which the individual team members learn to help each other. Team leaders and coaches can enhance that learning.
Feedback as an Essential Helping Process
Feedback, by definition, is information that helps one reach goals by showing that the current progress is either on or off target.
In this sense we are all seeking and using feedback throughout every day of our lives to ensure that what we intend comes to pass. But the information we seek, especially when we explicitly ask for help, is only useful if it is relevant to our target. The helper must be sure what the target is that the client is aiming for, and, therefore, must engage in humble inquiry before offering feedback.
In the group context, getting useful feedback is especially relevant because without it, the group can neither correct off-target behavior nor learn how to be more effective in reaching the target. Identifying progress, reviewing it, and starting conversations among the members that encourage useful feed-back—these are all essential to the helping process that creates and sustains teamwork.
- First of all, to be helpful, feedback must conform to some basic rules of interaction defined in this book as essential to the helping relationship.
- Feedback is generally not helpful if it is not asked for. As pointed out in previous chapters, the helper must first identify what problem the client is trying to solve before it becomes possible to provide help.
- Feedback not only needs to be solicited, but it needs to be specific and concrete.
- Finally, a fourth point is that feedback works best if it is descriptive rather than evaluative.
To summarize thus far, for team members to learn how to become helpers requires situations in which social norms can be temporarily suspended so that they can communicate with each other openly. Such feedback works best if it is solicited rather than imposed, if it is concrete and specific, if it fits into a shared goal context, and if it is descriptive rather than evaluative. Team members who share this kind of communication will develop the mutual helping relationships that will enable them to function smoothly under task pressure.
When the Team Is Not Colocated
Can trust be developed without face-to-face communication?
First, help at a distance clearly can work if at an earlier time in its history the team has solved the problem of role relations and relative statuses. If the process of team building described above has created trust, the members will know how to interpret each other’s electronic contributions or will have the ability to ask what things mean.
If the team has never met, a second principle has to be invoked. Norms of mutual acceptance have to be built based on just words.
Unless there is a severe time constraint, a network of strangers can clearly establish helping relationships by engaging in suitable inquiry.
Helping Leaders and Organizational Clients
Helping in relation to leadership has three aspects:
- How do leaders create such conditions and how does helping come into play?
- Secondly, in relation to subordinates, does organizational leadership imply that sometimes subordinates must be helped in performing their tasks? Can and should leaders be helpers?
- Thirdly, how does one help leaders?
Who is the Client?
Although from the outset helpers know the client’s targets for change, the dilemma is that they do not know what the potential impact of the change would be on other parts of the organization. The helper is dealing with an immediate contact client but is making changes for unknown others who have to be thought of as ultimate clients. The helper must consider, therefore, whether the immediate help being provided to the contact client could be harmful to the ultimate client.
And the greatest irony here is that in order to manage others through the change process effectively, leaders must first learn to accept help themselves.
Just as helping is at the core of effective teamwork, so is helping a crucial process in the management of change.
To put this into very concrete terms, an ideal boss would be very clear about the targets that need to be met by the subordinates, but then would be prepared to help them to achieve those targets. The boss would not only provide resources, guidance, feedback, and advice, but other forms of help that subordinates might ask for.
Culture and Leadership
The point is that new leaders cannot initiate any change until they understand the norms, traditions, and practical drifts of the group or department that is being taken over. To learn what is actually going on, the leader must become an inquirer to establish helping relationships with the employees and build trust.
Accepting Help as a Leadership Function
Many people in senior management positions have the power and the potential to be effective change managers through learning how to help, but their formal position and actual power often lead them into premature fixing. Those at the top of the ladder, in particular, are drawn to the expert and doctor role, whereas effective change management really requires the process consultant role. The dilemma of the organizational consultant is how to get across to clients that they need to learn how to be process consultants and accept the role as a legitimate and
necessary part of being an effective leader.
The Helper Role in Organizational Consulting
When the goal is to help an organization, all of the complexities of helping are there. Helpers may not know exactly who their clients are at any given moment, but they should ensure that the top of the organization is involved and never skip a level in building the helping relationship. The way in which work with contact clients will be leveraged into help for others is not always clear, but it is imperative that contact clients must share the decision of how best to involve the next level of client.
A critical aspect of leadership is the ability to accept help and the ability to give help to others in the organization. Because organizations are sets of sub-cultures, leaders must always accept that nothing will change until they understand the culture of the group in which the behavioral changes are to be made. In that regard they must be able to accept help in deciphering culture. Leaders must also understand that they are part of the organization, and that any changes in the organization will inevitably involve changes in themselves. In that sense they are clients as well as initiators of the change effort.
One way to define leadership, then, is to say that it is both a process of setting goals and helping others (subordinates) to achieve those goals.
Principles and Tips
Helping is a common yet complex process. It is an attitude, a set of behaviors, a skill, and an essential component of social life. It is the core of what we think of as teamwork and is an essential ingredient of organizational effectiveness. It is one of the most important things that leaders do and it is at the heart of change processes.
Readiness to Give Help
In order to offer, give, and receive help effectively, we also need the ability to shift from whatever else we were doing and adopt a readiness to help or be helped.
Readiness to Receive Help
Readiness to receive help can also be problematic because help is often offered whether or not someone has asked for it. If I am suddenly offered help, I have to react to someone else’s initiative and have to cope with my momentary feeling of being one down. Either I suddenly realize that I do need the help that is being offered or, worse, I have to cope with the feeling of being perceived as needing help when, in fact, I think I’m OK and don’t need it at all.
PRINCIPLE 1: Effective Help Occurs When Both Giver and Receiver Are Ready
- Check out your own emotions and intentions before offering, giving, or receiving help.
- Get acquainted with your own desires to help and be helped.
- Don’t be offended when your efforts to help are not well received.
PRINCIPLE 2: Effective Help Occurs When the Helping Relationship Is Perceived to Be Equitable
- Remember that the person requesting your help may feel uncomfortable, so make sure to ask what the client really wants and how you can best help.
- If you are the client, look for opportunities to give the helper feedback on what is and what is not helpful.
PRINCIPLE 3: Effective Help Occurs When the Helper Is in the Proper Helping Role
- Never assume that you know what specific form of help is needed without checking first.
- In an ongoing helping situation, check periodically whether the role you are playing is still helpful.
- If you are the client, don’t be afraid to give feedback to the helper when you no longer feel helped.
PRINCIPLE 4: Everything You Say or Do Is an Intervention that Determines the Future of the Relationship
- In your role as helper, evaluate everything you say or do by its potential impact on the relationship.
- If you are the client, you also should be aware that everything you do sends a message.
- When you are giving feedback, try to be descriptive and minimize judgment.
- Minimize inappropriate encouragement.
- Minimize inappropriate corrections.
PRINCIPLE 5: Effective Helping Starts with Pure Inquiry
- You must always start with some version of pure inquiry.
- No matter how familiar a request for help sounds, try to perceive it as a brand new request that you have never heard before.
PRINCIPLE 6: It Is the Client Who Owns the Problem
- Be careful not to get too interested in the content of the client’s story until you have built the
- Keep reminding yourself that no matter how similar a problem is to one that you feel you know all about, it is that other person’s problem, not yours.
PRINCIPLE 7: You Never Have All the Answers
- Share your helping problem.