Help (I Need Some Continuum)

There’s a continuum to helping. If you want to be helpful, it helps to know where you’re coming from.

On one end is the bad samaritan. They see and don’t help. We’ll assume that’s not what you’re looking to do, but we have to acknowledge it exists.

Next is the non-judging-but-passively-listening friend. This is good for a venting session, but won’t really move the help needle. On the bright side, at least they’re engaging, unlike the bad samaritan.

In the middle of our continuum is the expert. The expert knows the answer. Sometimes this is good, sometimes it’s… lecture time. Big swings produce big hits and big misses.

Now that we’re getting somewhere, we find the doctor. The doctor can prescribe something to help and even troubleshoot the outcomes. While the expert has one answer, the doctor has a method for troubleshooting answers and results. But we’re still not at the extreme yet.

All the way opposite the bad samaritan is the process consultant. The process consultant doesn’t just prescribe solutions, they troubleshoot the whole process (kind of like the ultimate holistic warrior doctors as portrayed on TV).

Edgar Schein, in his classic Helping, breaks down the process consultant’s approach like this:

First, they help define the problem. The person asking for help might not know what they really need, so this is where the conversation has to start.

Second, they help define what their help can and can’t do. There are goals but there also clear (and reasonable) expectations to set.

Third, they make sure the person in need of help actually wants to improve things and that these are the things they want to improve. Some people aren’t ready when they get to this point, and that’s OK too.

Fourth, they help with next steps and implementation.

Fifth, unless the person who needs the help can learn to diagnose future problems themselves – from this process – the chances of the help working and sticking are slim to none.

Sixth, the process consultant shows, through their actions, that the purpose of their help is to pass on the diagnostic tools and structure for solving this problem and future problems. The person receiving the help knows this and takes those lessons forward.

Schein (and his brother Peter, see their books on culture or this post) are ballers. It seems like I’ve always got something new to learn anytime I pick up one of their books on even the simplest of topics. Helping is profoundly helpful.

Far too often I’ve received and given help that doesn’t live up to process consultant standards. It’s easy to be the expert and throw out an opinion faster than a pundit spouting a soundbite. It’s easy, especially professionally, to be a doctor who diagnoses, prescribes, and moves on to the next case. It’s even fulfilling to operate that way until you realize it’s all so temporary.

The best help I’ve ever given or received hands-down falls at the process consultant end of the continuum. Ain’t no help like the help that teaches you to help yourself going forward. Thanks Edgar for defining this in my brain. It’s truly helpful.

ps. Schein uses the expert, doctor, process consultant example in the book. I added the bad samaritan and the non-judging-but-passively-listening friend because they helped me better understand the progression from no help to good help.

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