On helping – traps as a helping relationship forms

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Aha my motivation to carry on reading and blogging about Schein’s book has been given a helpful(!) boost by a friend who commented in an email that she was enjoying reading it ‘by proxy’…thanks for the help..

Moving on from the general understanding of relationships in everyday life in terms of reciprocity, deference and demeanour.  The third chapter of Schein’s book on Helping starts to focus on the helping relationship with a particular emphasis on how that relationship ‘starts out’.  At the point where someone asks for help or offers it a number of social inequities and role ambiguities some to the fore.  It is a tense moment full of pitfalls and traps for both the potential helper and the potential client – but we only really notice it when it all goes wrong.

In the shoes of the ‘client-to-be’

When you need help and ask for it, you are immediately putting yourself ‘down’ – in effect you are giving yourself a loss of status, lowering your self-esteem and making your independence vulnerable.  In a culture where ‘independence’ is prized, asking for help feels demeaning.  [reminds me of the instances I have heard of when very vulnerable people overplay their abilities in benefits claim forms – it is actually hard to admit how much help you may need because the act itself makes you more dependent and more vulnerable].  So as a client-to-be the biggest problem is asking for help – because the act involves putting yourself ‘down’ and creating a status imbalance.

This imbalance and the anxiety and tension surrounding it may lead you – the ‘client-to-be’ – into one or more of five possible traps…which in turn create traps for the helper.

1) initial mistrust about whether the helper will be willing to help you, leads you to ‘cloak’ the real problem and ask about something less important.  This is about testing the potential helper’s responsiveness and sympathetic-ness.

…..the helper may respond by moving quickly to a solution thereby cutting off the opportunity for you to present your ‘real’ problem and leaving you feeling disappointed and ‘unhelped’

2) sharing the problem leads to such relief that you become completely dependent on and subordinate to the helper.  You feel as if you no longer own the problem and have a role in resolving it.

…..the helper may respond by reinforcing this dependency which means it is more difficult for you to become pro-active and own the situation when the helper is no longer involved

3) you ask for confirmation or validation of your solution for your problem, rather than ask for help with the problem.  Here you just say what you think you want to do and hope that the other person confirms it.  This is another way of ‘cloaking’ the real problem – that you want help on something ‘sticky’ and ‘messy’.

….the helper may just confirm what you want to hear and move on, leaving you no better off than you really were before.

4) you may look for opportunities to bring the helper down – make them look inept, for example by belittling their advice.

…..the helper may respond by getting defensive and argumentative

5) you bring your experiences of prior helpers and helping occasions to ‘bias’ how you judge everything that is happening on this particular occasion.

In the meantime…

In the shoes of the ‘helper-to-be’

If someone asks you to help then you get an immediate ‘up’ – a gain in status and power.  Value is being placed on you by the potential client.  They are bestowing power on you – and it is this act that creates an imbalance in the relationship.  You need to be aware of this power – you could use it badly, take advantage of the situation or you could use it well.  It would be far too demeaning to give up this power by saying ‘I don’t think I can help’ – so you may try to help even if you don’t have the skills or knowledge to do so.

The other aspect is that you are in a position where you are expected to respond.  The interaction means you are supposed to help or provide an acceptable excuse….you cannot ignore that moment.  Doing so, not only loses you face, but also potentially demeans the potential client by making them think they are not worthy of your attention.

This imbalance and the anxiety and tensions around it also put you in a place where you – the helper – are vulnerable are falling into traps.  There are six possible traps – some of which have already been touched on above in terms of your responses to the ‘clients’ traps.

1) You could give advice too soon.  Jump to a conclusion.

…..but – this assumes the client has given you the real problem PLUS it puts the client down even further because it makes it look as though the problem is easy to solve (and therefore they are stupid not to have just dealt with it themselves).

2) You could meet defensiveness or questions about your suggested solution with more pressure.  You start trying to convince the client that your solution is ‘right’ and that they just can’t understand what you are saying.  Once you start doing this, you are in a spiral because to back-off and admit you may have been ‘wrong’ is to lose face and put yourself down.

3) You could rapidly move to accept the problem and start working on it.  The client is then in the place where they may become even more dependent – before they have had time to properly ‘suss’ you out.

….but – this assumes that you know you can help with the problem even when you know very little about ‘it’ and ‘its’ context.  It is also an assertion of your power – reinforcing initial dependency because it may leave the client disengaged from the ongoing work.

4) You could give support and reassurance (“you poor thing”) which reinforces the client’s subordinate status and also allows the client to believe that they themselves are not part of the problem.

5) You could be objective and aloof which conveys an unwillingness to get involved.  You need to find the right mix of objectivity and involvement.  You need to be ready to inquire deeper into the client’s problem and that means being ready to learn and change your own perceptions – you need a willingness to be influenced.  If you genuinely listen to the client you grant the client status by showing that their understanding of the problem is important – you need to show that you are willing to learn from them.

6) You could bring your experiences of prior clients and helping situations to ‘bias’ how you judge everything that is happening on this particular occasion.  You need to understand yourself and the potential emotional reactions you will commonly have when being asked for help.

What this means

So building a helping relationship means being aware of these traps.  As the potential helper you have more ‘power’ so it is more important that you are aware of the traps.  You need to be aware of them, ready to avoid them, and ready to deal with the consequences of falling into them.  This is not easy – the cultural norms mean that being asked for help is immediately empowering – but it also places you in a position of responsibility.

Would-be helpers want to give so much that they can also potentially become over-helpful.  Sometimes the most ‘helpful’ moments are not the well-conceived, well-planned, full-blown interventions – they are the small insights or routine questions that happen along the way.

At this moment of imbalance with all its anxiety and tension, the crucial responsibility for the helper is to build up the client’s status.  This requires the helper to make a choice about the role they will take – often you are not aware you have this choice – a choice of how to ‘engage’ – the choice you make at this point has a consequence for the development of that relationship.  The next chapter covers the different role choices that can be made.


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

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