On helping – review and moving on

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Can’t believe nearly a month has gone by since my last blog… but hey it is supposedly ‘summer’ and there has been the distraction of the olympics.  But I thought I’d better return to my inquiry into helping..

There are a number of other chapters in Schein’s book after the one on humble inquiry, but they are more about applications of the ideas covered in all the blogs to date, rather than new information. 

He focusses to start with on examples of humble inquiry – or examples of when it does and doesn’t happen and the resulting consequences.

He then covers a chapter on teamwork, which he defines as perpetual reciprocal helping.  I particularly liked this idea. The degree to which mutual helping is required depends on the nature of the task and the degree of interdependence between different team members tasks.  Sometimes interdependence is simultaneous – so in effect team members are mutually helping each other to achieve each other’s goals.  Sometimes interdependence is more sequential – like on a production line.  To Schein, if there is no interdependence and no need for mutual helping, you have a ‘group’ not a team.  It’s interesting that – I have seen a number of different ‘definitions’ of team and group over the years and this really rings true.  I sometimes feels too that some teams have lob-sided roles so some members are more dependent on other team members than others are, I can see how this plays out into being ‘one-up’ and ‘one-down’.  The chapter also prompts me to think about partnership groups and inter-agency ‘teams’ – ones that have the task of developing a strategic approach – here the ‘helping’ is a lot to do with learning so humble inquiry would be a vital beginning to any such group.

Naturally Schein emphasises the role of the group leader in helping the team members develop and sustain helpful relationships with each other.  The leader has to be helpful in clarifying the task and then help the team members to do their job by helping them with the necessary resources.  If a team member comes to them for help, they need to be a process consultant and engage in humble inquiry.

The next chapter is one on helping organisations and leaders of organisations.  It is written more from a ‘consultancy’ perspective than an insider perspective which is disappointing.  However, there is an important learning point for my type of role – the need to create the situation where the leader is ready to accept help and influence.  As an ‘insider’, my job involves a lot of trying to influence others – maybe re-framing that as being helpful to others would sometimes be more productive.

And the final chapter is a number of principles and tips to summarise the book.

So since reading the book, I have been more consciously aware of occasions when helping is taking place.  What has been most interesting is how what can appear like a general ‘chat’ ends up morphing into a helping situation… it’s not like anyone asked for help, the conversation can shift into that mode.  I am not sure whether this is because I naturally move work-related conversations with close colleagues into a mode where I am being an ‘expert’ or ‘doctor’ – and perhaps I need to try and be process consultant.  On a couple of occasions so far I have tried to check myself and ‘divert’ the course into process consultant and try and stay in inquiry mode but this is hard to remember (it is after all a habit to change) and also often not what the other is expecting.  The other really helpful(!) insight that I have gained from the book is into issues of reciprocity, deference and demeanour and what that means for the way in which services should be ‘provided’ or community development takes place.  The big ‘shift’ into an asset based way of working, rather than a deficit, need model seems to resonate a lot with the basic approach you take to helping people – if we need to raise self-esteem and enable people to have control then we need to act as process consultants to help them to do that – not be the ‘professional’ acting in expert or doctor mode.  I am sure there is some sort of research project into the community development worker as process consultant.

So all in all a good read – Schein has giving me insights into helping relationships and helping… of course, whether I can learn to use these insights in the moment remains to be seen.


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

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