Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help

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Helping is a fundamental human activity, but it can also be a frustrating one. All too often, to our bewilderment, our sincere offers of help are resented, resisted, or refused—and we often react the same way when people try to help us. Why is it so difficult to provide or accept help? How can we make the whole process easier?

In this seminal book on the topic, corporate culture and organizational development guru Ed Schein analyzes the social and psychological dynamics common to all types of helping relationships, explains why help is often not helpful, and shows what any would-be helpers must do to ensure that their assistance is both welcomed and genuinely useful.

The moment of asking for and offering help is a delicate and complex one, fraught with inequities and ambiguities. Schein helps us navigate that moment so we avoid potential pitfalls, mitigate power imbalances, and establish a solid foundation of trust. He identifies three roles a helper can play, explaining which one is nearly always the best starting point if we are to provide truly effective help. So that readers can determine exactly what kind of help is needed, he describes an inquiry process that puts the helper and the recipient on an equal footing. These dynamics not only apply to all kinds of one-on-one helping in personal and professional relationships, teaching, social work, and medicine but also can be usefully applied to teamwork and to organizational leadership.

Using examples from many types of relationships—doctors and patients, consultants and clients, husbands and wives—Ed Schein offers a concise, definitive analysis of what it takes to establish successful, mutually satisfying helping relationships.

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1 What Is Help?

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Helping is a complex phenomenon. There’s helpful help and unhelpful help. This book is written to shed light on the difference between the two. In my career as a professor and sometimes consultant I often reflect on what is helpful and what is not, why some classes go well and others do not, why coaching and experiential learning are often more successful than formal lectures. When I am with organizational clients, why does it work better to focus on process rather than content, or how things are done rather than what is done? My goal in this book is to provide the reader with enough insight to be able to actually help when help is asked for or needed, and to be able to receive help when help is needed and offered. Neither is as easy as we often wish.

The other day, for example, a friend asked me for some advice on how to deal with a problem he was having with his wife. I offered a suggestion to which he replied huffily that not only had he already tried that and it didn’t work, but he also implied that I was insensitive to have even made that suggestion. It reminded me of many other situations I have witnessed where help was asked for or offered but the result felt unsuccessful and uncomfortable.

 

2 Economics and Theater The Essence of Relationships

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We learn early in life about two fundamental cultural principles. The first and most important of these is that all communication between two parties is a reciprocal process that must be, or at least must seem to be, fair and equitable. We must all learn the rules of social economics if we are to survive and be comfortable in the social world. At the simplest level, children learn they must say “thank you” when given something, or in some way acknowledge the gift. The thank you is the reciprocation, the giving back that closes the communication loop and makes that interaction fair and equitable. Similarly, children learn they must pay attention when spoken to. The word “pay” acknowledges that the other person has offered information or instruction of some value. As we will see, we expect reciprocation in all relationships. Failure to reciprocate risks offending someone and leads to a deterioration of the 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. We must play our roles appropriately, and these roles must mesh in accordance with the given situation. When two people are talking they must decide who is actor (talking) and who is audience (listening). The roles can switch very quickly, but for social interaction to work, they must be complementary. The actual economic values involved in an interaction are defined by this second fundamental principle—the definition of the situation—which specifies the roles we are to play and the value we are to attach to them. If I signal by my voice and demeanor that I have something important to tell you, that defines the situation, the roles, and the exchange. You automatically take a more attentive stance and indicate through your behavior that you are listening carefully. You expect to hear something of importance and will be offended and irritated if I was merely trying to draw your attention away from what you were doing. I did not play the role properly according to the situation I had defined.

 

3 The Inequalities and Ambiguities of the Helping Relationship

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We turn now to the particular underlying dynamics of helping situations and the pitfalls of creating a helping relationship. In this chapter I explore the social inequities and role ambiguities that are exposed when someone asks for help or when help is offered. In a mature trusting relationship, in the daily flow of informal help, and in a well-organized functioning team, these dynamics are mostly hidden, and a great deal of help occurs smoothly and without much notice. Giving and receiving help has been learned from childhood, and reciprocation takes place automatically with nods of the head, thank you’s, and other acknowledgments. The roles of giver and receiver are passed back and forth without fanfare as needed.

It is when the relationship or team hits a bump, when something unexpected or new comes up, or when there is no relationship to begin with, that the roles of helper or client become salient and the social economics come into play. This can happen without warning in informal situations when we may suddenly find ourselves in a client role—we may need directions, we may need someone to pick something up that we dropped when our hands are full, we may need someone to open a door for us, or we may need to cross into another lane and for an anonymous driver to let us in. As friends or spouses we may want advice or support for some issue that has come up. As team members we may encounter a new situation that requires recalibrating our roles. We may observe someone in need of help and offer it spontaneously, sometimes eliciting surprise and maybe even dismay on the part of the client-to-be. When this informal kind of helping occurs smoothly, we don’t notice the underlying dynamics; but when it does not, we become confused and puzzled about the causes.

 

4 Helping as Theater Three Kinds of Helping Roles

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At the beginning of any helping situation the appropriate roles and the rules of equity are inherently ambiguous, which means that both the helper and the client have to develop an identity and choose a part to play. This ambiguity exists even when the formal roles seem clear—as when we visit a doctor or go to a computer consultant—because at the outset neither helper nor client know all the facts. This mutual ignorance is rarely acknowledged explicitly, yet disregarding it is the reason for falling into the many traps outlined in the previous chapter.

The only thing that is clear when help is asked for or offered is that initially the client is one down and the helper is one up and, though they may not consciously feel it, both parties are anxious about how the situation will work out. If they are to form a successful helping relationship, they must deal with that imbalance by accessing their areas of ignorance and gradually removing them (Schein, 1999).

The number of things we don’t know at the beginning of a potential helping relationship is vast, but the information needed can be gathered very rapidly, even in the first few minutes, if we are conscious of the need and if we say or do the right things at the outset. I find that even in the simplest helping situations, such as being asked for directions, it is useful to take a moment to think about what I don’t know and what the client does not know. Once we understand these areas of ignorance, we can select the appropriate roles to deal with them.

 

6 Applying the Inquiry Process

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In this chapter I provide a variety of cases to illustrate how inquiry works as the key part of the helping process. Each example tries to bring out the social dynamics that are unleashed in various kinds of helping situations and provides concurrent analysis to highlight the lessons learned. Table 6.1 lists the case examples so that the reader can pick and choose in terms of interest.

We begin with a hypothetical case that provides an opportunity to analyze in detail what goes on between two people in an informal setting. The example involves a relatively minor request for help but illustrates the dynamics that develop in all helping requests. In the next two brief examples of formal help I was part of a group in a consultant role and learned how minimal inquiry can have large impacts. The next extended case illustrates the interplay of different forms of inquiry where I was helping a colleague analyze why his helping experiences were not working out. The final two examples illustrate helping a client who is physically debilitated and, therefore, requires a different level of help over a longer period of time.

 

7 Teamwork as Perpetual Reciprocal Helping

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Teamwork and team building are increasingly seen as crucial to organizational performance, whether we are talking about a business, an athletic competition, a family, or just two workers coordinating their efforts. More books are written about team building than any other aspect of organization development. Yet it is still not entirely clear what the essence of teamwork is. One aspect is clearly that every member must perform some role that is relevant to what the group is trying to do. What I have said so far about the complexities of finding one’s role in the various scenes of life’s theater applies especially when we join a group that is trying to do something collectively. Learning what several people expect of you is far more difficult than learning what one other person expects and needs.

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.

 

8 Helping Leaders and Organizational Clients

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Helping in relation to leadership has three aspects. As pointed out in the previous chapter, one of the key roles of leader-ship is to create the conditions for teamwork where individual members of a group or several groups are interdependent in the performance of organizational tasks. 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? And, thirdly, how does one help leaders? What makes all of these questions complex is that we are now dealing with organizations where not all the people involved are in the room or even in communication with each other. That raises the whole question of who is the client.

From the perspective of the helper, a consultant guiding an organization through an organization development process and helping a leader to be more effective are the two most complex helping situations that he or she faces because they involve multiple clients with fixed statuses and roles. Though most of the actual help is one-on-one or in small groups, the client is often seeking to influence other groups or the organization as a whole. The client/leader often wants a diagnosis, a prescription, and sometimes assistance in implementing programs that involve others in the organization who have not been part of the helping process.

 

9 Principles and Tips

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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. Yet it often goes wrong. As helpers we often feel that well-meaning help is refused or ignored. As clients we often feel we do not get the help we need, we get the wrong kind of help, we feel overhelped, or, worst of all, we discover too late that we were not aware of some of the best help we got and then feel guilty. To sort out these complexities and to summarize some of the insights provided thus far, I offer in this chapter some final thoughts, some principles, and some tips.

Though helping is a common social process, it is not the only social process. Our relationships with others have many other functions. 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. It is part of our social training to be prepared to help and to offer help when the ongoing situation suddenly makes helping an imperative or at least an option. But this impulse to help or seek help can run counter to what else is going on.

 

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