I was just trying to Help

I was just trying to Help

injury treatmentA friend called me recently to tell me that they’d lost their job. They couldn’t understand the decision and we spoke for an hour or so working through the roller coaster of emotions they were feeling, from anger, to frustration, to anxiousness and amazement. I just listened, that’s really all I could do. I couldn’t fix the situation and I couldn’t change the decision.

A few weeks later my friend was feeling much better when they rang to thank me for helping them get a better job. Of course, I didn’t them get them the job, it wasn’t me who did their CV, typed the application or attended the interview, but I had helped in some way on that day by listening and allowing them work through their thoughts.

When we think that ‘helping’ people has to be about taking action, about solving their problems, or about giving answers, we can be seduced into thinking that doing such things may be ‘helpful’ when in fact they may be an impediment. Perhaps sometimes the best help is ‘doing’ less and listening more.

This got me thinking about how ‘help’ is often ‘done’ in risk and safety and about some of the different contexts, meanings and discourse that it might have. Here are two common examples I hear:

  • When seeing something that the risk and safety person perceives is unsafe, I hear things like “Hey mate, doing it that way is really unsafe, you could be injured and I care about you, so let me ‘help’ you by showing you how to do things safely” or;
  • When introducing themselves during an induction – “I’m your Safety Advisor and it’s my job to ‘help’ you go home to your family in the same condition that you came in”.

I know there will be many people reading this and thinking ‘well done’ to those folk in risk and safety that go about their work in this way. I’m also confident that many will be asking ‘what’s wrong with that? That’s the job, we are here to ‘help’ and we should be doing these things.

Some of you may be familiar with my previous piece about Safety Crusaders and after reading the above comments may be thinking these are not the words and actions of a ‘Crusader’, they are not acting as the ‘safety police’ and ‘helping’ can’t be wrong, can it?

Of course the answer is there’s nothing ‘wrong’ about it. Like many things when it comes to dealing with, and understanding risk, this approach is not wrong, but neither is it right! Now you may be really confused and think what I am I smoking as I write this?

The reason I believe that the approach is neither right, nor wrong, is that simplistic and binary thinking in this instance is not that helpful. Instead, I think it may be more useful to think about the trade-offs, and hence the associated by-products that may come about if this is the only approach we take to ‘helping’?

To ‘help’ further explain what I mean, lets explore these examples further and think about the trade-offs and by-products that may come about if we take this approach to ‘helping’:

  • When we intervene when someone is doing something we perceive is unsafe and move to ‘helping’ by showing them, one trade-off may be that the person doesn’t really understand or know about the task, they learn only by copying what they see us do. A by-product of this might be that the person is not be able to adapt when things don’t go exactly the same way every time.

Another approach we could consider is to engage in a conversation with the person, ask them about whether they can think of any dangers, entertain doubt by asking ‘could anything go wrong?’, or ask if they have thought of anything that may disrupt their plans. This might ‘help’ them by getting them to think through and ‘act out’ what may go wrong. This may ‘help’ them learn and be prepared for the unexpected.

  • One of the old chestnuts in risk and safety is the “help you go home in the same condition you arrive” attitude. One of the trade-offs that may occur here is that people adopt an attitude that safety is something that risk and safety people do and take care of, and the by-product may be that they don’t fully understand safety procedures, or wear safety equipment unless we instruct them to do so, or unless we are around.

Instead, could we adopt an attitude of, “I’m here to support you to learn about your new job and workplace. I’d love to hear about what you already know, and together we can work on filling in any gaps and share each others experiences”. Of course there is so much more to learning than this, and Rob Long’s piece on this is a good read.

One of the key things that I have learnt from my many years in risk and safety is that ‘helping’ someone does not always mean taking action and ‘doing’. The other thing that I’ve learnt is that on so many occasions, I thought what I was doing was ‘helping’, when in fact the feedback I received afterwards was that I was being less than helpful. This reminds me of something I read in Helping – How to Offer, Give and Receive Help, by Edgar Schein where he wrote:

“Friends, editors, consultants, teachers and coaches have often made suggestions and proposals that were quite irrelevant to my problem at the time. Even when I ignored them as gently as I could, my sometimes self-appointed helpers reminded me in an irritated tone that they were only trying to be helpful, implying that I was wrong in some way not to have been able to accept their help.” (Schein 2001, p. 2)

There are many ways in which help is offered, given and received constantly as we go about our lives. But how do we really know if our ‘help’ is ‘helping’?

There may be times when we know that we have ‘helped’ because we can actively see the things we do and people openly thank us. For example I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve ‘helped’ mates and family move house or I ‘help’ by picking a friend up from work, or by mowing the neighbours lawn while they are on holiday. For these examples, it can be obvious to know what ‘helping’ means.

However as I’ve noted in my example above, listening and asking questions to help people work through their own thoughts may be just as helpful. I wonder whether there are times in risk and safety when ‘helping’ is best when we are ‘meeting’ people rather than ‘doing as helping or ‘telling as helping’’?

Finally, I often hear when people adopt the ‘telling is helping’ approach the ‘help’ being disguised as ‘control’. Things like “Let me help you to understand what I expect” or “I’ll help you to be clear about this…”. It can be useful to reflect on the language that we, and our organisations use, and the associated discourse of our language, when it comes to ‘helping’.

Reflecting may also help us to recognise whether our ‘help’ is about a genuine care for ‘others’ or whether we are (either consciously or non-consciously) trying to ‘control’ people but disguising it as ‘help’. It can be so easy to slip into ‘control’ (aka Crusader) mode in risk and safety, there are so many things in our social environment (e.g. law, regulators and fear) that can influence this. Our challenge in risk and safety is to firstly recognise this in ourselves and then, reflect and consider how this approach is really impacting and ‘helping’ others.

Taking time to reflect on how we go about ‘helping’ (offer, giving and receiving) is critical when we consider the value we bring to our relationships. Here are some questions that might support your thinking about you go about ‘helping’:

  • Have you ever helped someone with the intention of ‘self’ rather than ‘other’? In your reflection, why do you think you may have done this?
  • Have you ever offered ‘help’ and it was refused? What did you learn from this?
  • Have you ever felt someone didn’t appreciate the ‘help’ you were trying to provide? Why do you think they felt this way? Why do you think there was a difference between the help you thought they needed, and what they felt they wanted?
  • What things do you do to ‘help’ others? How do they respond?
  • What is the best thing that someone has done to help you? Why was it so good?
  • Are there situations where you could help more by listening rather then ‘doing’?

Has this article been ‘helpful’? I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and comments.



Author: Robert Sams

Phone: 0424 037 112

Email: robert@dolphyn.com.au

Web: www.dolphyn.com.au

Rob Sams
Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.

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