Alex Chiri's Blog

The challenge of helping others

A book I've been reading lately revealed to me how tricky helping relationships can be, even though we put ourselves in such relationships several times every day and we don't even realise it. There are many things we do automatically successfully and we don't even think about it. Because we have been trained for many years by society and parents how to do it correctly according to the common rules. Helping others is no exception: we have been taught to help people around us that are in need and be receptive to others' pain and distress. All of this comes naturally to many of us. But that is not the case in all situations.

One very interesting point that stuck with me after reading "Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help" by Edgar Schein is regarding the status imbalance that happens in a helping relationship, in the words of the author:

At 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 failing to acknowledge this initial imbalance and deal with it. - Edgar Schein, "Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help"

While this can apply to even the most common helping relationship, like helping someone and opening the door for them, I would like to focus on the relationship that happens between a consultant and his/her client. This is not something our automatic processes can handle, it requires conscious action from both parties. Which makes the imbalance mentioned above even more important to know of.

First, as a consultant, it's important to identify who is your client. In the situation where a manager brings you to teach her team how to write code, who is your client: the manager or the team? Could both be your clients? How would the realisation that not all clients want your help influence your behavior? Could it be that the status imbalance is even more important to know of in this case, maybe even crucial?

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. - Edgar Schein, "Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help"

Truth is that in the beginning both helper and client don't really know how to develop the relationship. We start with the basics that society taught us: to shake hands and be respectful and formal. But other than that, anything could happen.

One could ignore all of this and simply start giving advice and consult without knowing much about the client, maybe just some assumptions based on stereotyping and that could be very dangerous for the outcome. The author of the book suggests the helper takes an active role in sorting these out, the roles and the imbalance:

To build a helping relationship that works therefore requires interventions on the part of the helper that build up the client’s status and elicit valid information. Starting out in the process consultant role is the most likely to facilitate status equilibration and to reveal the information necessary to decide on what kind of help is needed and how best to provide it. - Edgar Schein, "Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help"

So helpers need to find ways to level the imbalance from the start and the author suggests starting playing the process consultant role, which basically means to use different types of inquiry to find out more about the client's situation and build trust. Once more information is revealed and both helper and client have a better picture of the roles they should play, then the foundation of the helping relationship is set and the help can be given and received in a more effective way.

While there are many more interesting points the author makes in the book, I don't want to make this post longer than it should be. What do you think? Did you experience any helping relationships that, in retrospect, failed because you were not aware of the dynamics between the helper and the client? Would you have done anything different?