On helping – getting started

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Last summer when I came across the work of Schein on research, I found a book that he had written called “Helping: how to offer, give and receive help“.  I bought the book in early November, just as T847 started so it has sat there largely unread.  I’ve started it a couple of times and then faltered – distracted with ‘real’ studying.  And then I tried again when the course finished.  It’s not the book – I realised that I am really bad at really taking things in and following an argument if I don’t turn to my notepad to take notes and my blog to summarise key points – I don’t think about what I am learning.  I can’t just read books – I have to interact with them if I am going to get anything from the process.

So I am starting again – a short burst of temporary purposeful activity to inquire into the notion of helping.  I figured writing a series of blogs as I go along may help with the momentum – and the learning process.

I suppose the first thing to cover is Why? – why have I developed this intrigue into helping? why do I want to find out more about it?  It is quite a simple reason – my work – my practice – is all about verbs like enable – support – facilitate – assist – aid – improve – guide – and I am sure that all of these verbs put into a Thesauraus would come up with the word help. It doesn’t matter how it is dressed up in my job description or my annual workplan – in essence my work involves helping.  I help others (individually or in groups) to do the work they need to do improve wellbeing and health – or the work they need to do to help others to do the work they need to do to improve wellbeing and health!  I have even heard work like mine dressed up as ‘internal consultancy’ – but consultancy too boils down to a helping relationship. The bottom line is understanding ‘help’ is important to understanding what I do when I do what I do…and that’s why I want to do this mini-inquiry…

So far I have read and taken notes on Schein’s Preface and Chapter 1: What is help? – this is what I am distilling so far…

There isn’t an up front definition of help but Schein does say

help is the action of one person that enables another person to solve a problem, to accomplish something, or to make something easier (page 7)

But quite a lot of what Schein covers is the nature of the relationship that is going on in that scenario…and how it doesn’t necessarily turn into ‘help’.  Help could be the intent of the helper but it could not be received that way by the ‘helped’.  So immediately I can see that ‘help’ arises in a social dynamic – it is not really the property of the action itself – it is the property of the interaction between the helper and the helped – and it is only if it works out for both that it is perceived as ‘helpful’ rather than ‘unhelpful’.

The other aspect that Schein draws attention to is that helping relationships are part of social fabric – part of everyday life.  Help is going on all over the place all the time.  Most literature tends to focus on very formal helping relationships – like a coach or a consultant or a doctor with their respective ‘clients’.  What Schein intends to bring out is the much more informal, everyday angle that makes up everyday life but he does particularly emphasise that ‘helping’ is an intrinsic part of organisational life – people get ‘hired’ into an organisation to help get a job done that can’t already be done.  An employee is essentially helping their employer.  Helping relationships all have an element of reciprocity built into them – the helper expects something in return – whether that is ‘thank you’, or a payment, or respect, or acknowledgement, or knowledge that the favour will be returned…

To think of ‘help’ as part of everyday life, he draws on sociological theory and in particular mentions Goffman whom I came across when I studied D843 Discourse Analysis.  Goffman focussed on the micro level of social interaction and argued that it embodies a level of order that can be seen as an institution in its own right and should be studied.  What Schein then says is that ‘help’ is a particular type of social interaction, going on as part of the fabric of everyday life – in homes, in teams, in supermarkets, in organisations, in hospitals – and following Goffman that it is worthy of study to understand the nature of those interactions.

From what I have picked up so far, the structure of Schein’s argument as it unfolds in the book is:

  • Helping is a particular form of social relationship
  • To understand helping we have to understand social relationships and what makes them tick in general – I’m just coming on to that bit in the book but the preface points out that he is drawing on sociological work that says that social life is partly economics and partly theater – taking place within societies that are stratified and all social behaviour is reciprocal (mmm presumably I’ll understand that more once I move forward)
  • So once we have understood social relationships in general – we can then move on to think about helping as a particular form of social relationship….and use examples of different settings to show how this can work.  This can help us understand the psychological, social and cultural traps that are inherent in the helping process.
  • Then we have to put all this new understanding into practice – to change what we do when we do help or receive help.  The point of ‘initial contact’ really matters if an interaction evolves into a helping relationship.

I think that is enough to mull over for now.


Schein, E.H., 2009. Helping: how to offer, give and receive help First Edition., San Francisco, CA: Berret-Koehler Publishers.


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