On helping – making a choice of helping role

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Moving on to the fourth Chapter of Schein’s book on Helping.  We now look at the choice that the helper can make about the kind of helping role to take on (which goes back to the background material on social theatre that was covered in Chapter 2).

Before going into the detail of the three possible helping roles, Schein highlights the ambiguity that exists at the beginning of the helping relationship.  For both the helper and the client there are a number of unknowns at the beginning.

In the shoes of the helper….you don’t know…

  • if the client will understand information or advice given or the questions asked.
  • if the client has the necessary knowledge and skill necessary to follow any recommendations
  • what the client’s real motivation is
  • what the client’s contextual situation is
  • how the client’s experiences shape expectations, stereotypes and fears.

Meanwhile in the shoes of the client…you don’t know…

  • if the helper has the knowledge, skills and motivation to help
  • what the consequences are of asking the particular helper to help
  • if you can trust the helper not to use the situation inappropriately e.g. upsell or exert control
  • if you are capable of being able to do what is suggested
  • what it will cost – financially, socially and emotionally – to accept the help.

So now we have added another dimension to the moment when someone asks for help – we have two things coming together – the status difference which leads to traps for both client and helper (which was covered in chapter three) and now lots of ambiguity because there are things that both the client and the helper don’t know (covered above).

It is at that point in time that the helper has a choice as to the role that they take.  This choice reminds me of juggling the E-ball – but rather than a choice of outlook it is a choice of how to engage with a situation at quite a micro, level of interaction level – a choice of role.  Often you are not conscious that you have a choice to make or that you are making it. The important thing is to be aware of the moment of that choice and the implications of different options.

Schein highlights three fundamentally different ways in which a helper can help.  He emphasises that each of these roles may be needed at different times in a helping situation – everyone can play these roles and will need to shift between them.  But his emphasis on looking at these roles is – which one is the most appropriate starting point?

Option 1: to take on an expert resource role: provide an information or service

This is the most commonly understood way of what it means to help.  The client seeks some information or an expert service that they cannot do for themselves.  At its core is the assumption that the helper has some knowledge or skills that can be applied to the client’s problem.  But that requires:

  • the client to understand what their problem is in the first place – so that they can get the most suitable helper
  • the client being able to clearly communicate their problem to the helper
  • that the client has been able to accurately assess the skills and knowledge of the helper
  • the client understanding the implications of having the helper do something – rather than themselves
  • the ‘problem’ to be something tangible – that can be studied by an outsider and then turned into some information that the client can later use.  (interesting read across to ‘I spy a system that I can engineer’, rather than ‘I spy complexity and confusion that I need to understand’).

So this kind of helping role works where there is a clear problem – like a broken computer – and obvious ‘expertise’ around on how to repair it.  But if the problem is more complex…the more it becomes like a problematic situation… then the less helpful this role is at the beginning of the helping relationship.

If a helper takes this role, the client gives away even more power – they become dependent on the particular perspective that the ‘expert’ comes up with, which only works if there is ‘one single truth’.  Quite often too the ‘expert’ may seek to gather info about the setting through the use of survey instruments – turning rich concepts like culture or staff satisfaction into numerical values.  As Schein points out “the manager is not acquiring hard data, but opinion disguised as information” (page 57).

So the bottom line is – at the start of a helping relationship – with so much ambiguity and the status difference – this is probably not the most productive role to take on.

Option 2: The Doctor role: Diagnose and Prescribe

This is a kind of extension of the expert role…in addition to information and service, the client expects diagnosis and prescription.  So here the helper gets even more power and the client almost abdicates responsibility for any ownership of the problem.  There are an even greater set of assumptions that need to be ‘true’ in order for this role to be appropriate:

  • it assumes that the helper (an outsider) can get accurate diagnostic information.  Will the client reveal it?  With others who have such info be prepared to provide it?  This needs trust which you can’t assume you have.
  • it assumes that the client will subsequently be prepared to accept and believe both the diagnosis and the prescription.  If the helper has just gone about and done their thing without client involvement then there is very little common frame of reference.  And, what’s more the helper may know little about the nuances that affect ‘cultural feasibility’ of any suggested prescription
  • it assumes that accurately understand the consequences of the diagnostic process.  Diagnosis is not neutral – in itself it is an intervention.  It starts to change the situation – either negatively or positively.
  • it assumes client has skill and knowledge to implement the prescription
  • it assumes that the increased amount of client dependency won’t hinder the ongoing process

Once again – with the risky status difference and all the ambiguity and very little ‘trust’ around – this is not the best choice to make at the outset of a helping relationship.

Oh how I recognise the problems created by both helper and client entering into this dynamic.  I can think of at least two pieces of work involving consultants where all along I was thinking that they were not taking anyone on a journey and they were too distant. True enough the end reports and the ongoing work are never quite right. I think too that this is one of the aspects that frustrates me about organisational research – the researcher acts as this diagnostician that they then write up in a journal article along with ‘implications for practice’…and then wonder why practitioners aren’t taking on the “evidence” that they have generated.  But also on a personal level, I can think of situations where I have ‘helped’ a colleague and taken on this role, with a resultant feeling of dissatisfaction because they aren’t all enthusiastic about doing what I ‘tell’ them.  The other bell this rings for me is the nature of ‘reports’ with ‘recommendations’ that go to committees – here the author(s) of the report are operating in doctor mode – “you have this problem, this is the background to it etc, this is what you should agree to do”.  Again something I have felt uncomfortable about doing (which takes me back to my inquiry on my practice of making recommendations that I did nearly a year ago now).

Option 3: The process consultant role

Here the helper starts by focusing on the process of interaction and communication between themselves and the client.  Whilst the content of the request is important it actually takes backstage because the goal initially is not to ‘solve the problem’ but to even out the status difference and reduce the ambiguity.  The helper therefore creates a situation where the client reveals more and in the process lets the client gain status and develop trust.  The helper does this through ‘humble inquiry’ (which is covered in detail in Chapter 5 of the book so we will have to wait for that one).

Adopting this role rests on these assumptions:

  • the client doesn’t really know what is wrong but needs help to diagnose what their problems actually are – only they own and live with the problem
  • the client doesn’t really know what kind of help a consultant can give and need guidance to know what kinds of help to seek
  • the client is motivated to and intends to improve the situation but they need help in identifying the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.
  • the client is really the only person who knows that will work in their situation (what is culturally feasible)
  • that if the client learns their way through one problem, they will be better able to ‘fix’ future ones
  • the purpose of ‘help’ is to pass on diagnostic skills and help in a way that clients are more able to improve their own situations on their own in the future.

So given that we have already excluded the two other roles as inappropriate to the start of a helping relationship, that means this is the one.  Sometimes this role may only be needed for a few minutes (e.g. at the beginning of an appointment with a doctor) other times for a lot longer (e.g. at onset of consultancy work).  Even if the client asking for help assumes that the helper will ‘return’ in expert or doctor role, it is better if the helper responds as a process consultant.  It is only through this role that the helper can remove the ignorance and ambiguity; lessen the initial status difference; and, identify what further role may be needed later on.

It is really refreshing to read this.  Schein encapsulates for me the reasons why most consultancy interventions frustrate me and what I wish they would be like.  In some ways too he encapsulates the nature of the ‘helping role’ that I would like to play at work – I can see that I would like to be a process consultant to both individuals and groups – but often I am asked as expert (or occasionally doctor) and then slip into that role.  The key thing here is choice…if I can remember in the moment that I have a choice as to how to proceed, how to respond.. then I do have a way of getting out of the existing ‘vicious circle’.  The other resonance for me is the read across the Ison’s notion of creating response-able circumstances…choosing the process consultant role is part of that ethical choice.

So now to read about humble inquiry.


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

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