John Bennett/ May 10, 2020/ Development, Executive Coaching, Leadership, Teaching

As human beings, we often strive to be helpful. We may do this in one or more of our roles as a friend, colleague, manager, peer, coach, consultant, parent, sibling, etc. In his book, Helping, Edgar Schein (2007) wrote about the imbalance that occurs when a helping relationship emerges. This imbalance involves the person being helped as a “down” or “subordinated” position (NOTE: this is not “subordinate”).

Most of us want to be helpful, valued, and providing to others. However, our desire to help may not match the needs or desires of those we seek to help. Here are some reasons why our help doesn’t always work:

  1. Rejection of help. The person we are trying to help may not want help, may not want the help we are offering, or may not want help from us. So, make sure the person you want to help wants help, from you, and in the manner in which you want to offer it.
  2. Misunderstanding the need for help. We may not understand the needs of the person we are trying to help. Clarify what the true needs and desires of the potential recipient of your help-inquire.
  3. Projecting our needs. We may project our impressions, assumptions, conclusions, and needs on the person we are trying to help by trying to help them based on a misunderstanding of their needs. Be mindful of what you want for the other person compared to what they want for themselves or are ready to accept from you.
  4. Projecting our solutions. The person we are trying to help may want our help, but not the specific version of the help we are offering. Gain agreement about the help you are offering. Be sure you are providing the help they are willing to accept, in the form(s) they are will to accept, at the time and place they are ready to accept it from you. Avoid giving them what we want or what we think they need; imposing your solution.
  5. Creating dependence. We may provide help in a way that creates dependence on us, the helper. But doing so does not help the person develop independence. Avoid becoming a crutch— “put yourself out of a job” as the helper. Support the person you are helping to be more independent—less dependent on you or others for help. In addition, help them to be more interdependent—making choices about the help they need from a variety of sources and asking for what they need, in the way they need it, and when they need it.
  6. Doing to others. This can be a tough one… in our efforts to help, we may be doing something TO the person we are trying to help versus doing it WITH them. You may have noticed yourself taking a task away from someone because you think you can do it better or faster than the person you are trying to help. Of, you may have done something for another person in the spirit of helping without their person assuming they wanted it done. A simple question like, “May I help?” or “Would you like my assistance as you do ___?” could make the difference between thinking you are doing something “to-them” versus “with-them”.

In conclusion, DO help. But, check your motives and the desire of those we want to help, and seek ways to help the person you are helping build their capacity for independence and interdependence. We all need help and “most of us” DO want to be helpful 🙂

Here are a few questions to help you consider your role as a helper:

  • Do I understand the needs of the person I’m want to help?
  • Am I the best person to provide this help?
  • What’s the best way to provide help?
  • What is driving me to help this person at this time?

As always, I’m interested in your thoughts, so please leave your comments below.

Photo by Fernando Venzano on Unsplash


© 2020, John L. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.

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  1. John, as you always share, an important perspective. I am seeing so many working groups of coaches popping up to talk about how we can help but not how we can find out what help is needed or appreciated. In many instances, I would rather be working than speaking about working if you know what I mean. As I work with first responders, and as a Shadow Coach, it’s an incredibly busy time for me. I would love to hear about how to have the conversation about helpfulness to see what we can contribute of value to people. Not just, “How can I help?” More along the lines of, “If I could do something for you, what might that be?” kind of conversation. I’d like to see a follow-up article about the approach to helpfulness.

    I so appreciate your wisdom. Thanks for this!
    Keep well and safe, Donna

    1. Donna, it is good to hear from you. You are a skilled helper. The perspective you share is valuable. Thank you for challenging my thinking and practice. Here are a few other versions of the question: What’s the help you wish you had? If you were to help someone your situation what would you do for them?

  2. Good advice, especially during these unsettling times. Opportunities to help someone during times where the issues you’ve raised were more easily addressed and common cause found still ran into problems due to the points you’ve raised.
    In this time, given the complexity and longevity of where we are and where we’re headed, these conversations are arguably more important than ever, and may require adjustment over time.
    As a general principle, I am sure your guidance on this as in many other cases is to communicate, and communicate, and then communicate more, towards the goal of assuring understanding and agreement. “Giving good help is not an easy lift; but it is important, so work carefully at it.”

  3. Good advice! This was relevant for me today! Thank you!

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