The Advisor as Skilled Helper
The idea of ‘helping’ is essential to the professions (Susskind & Susskind., The Future of The Professions 2015). However, the absence of the language of ‘helping’ in the safety industry is not surprising. When the goal is zero and the activity is counting where is the motivation for ‘helping’?
One’s goals are a manifestation of decision making and often drive one’s behaviour and the absence of the language of ‘caring’ and ‘helping’ in the safety industry is astounding, particularly in ratio to other language like ‘compliance’ and ‘vigilance’ and of course, the discourse of ‘telling’.
Here is a little experiment for you: go to any policy in safety in your company and simply do a word count. Look for the favoured words and non-favoured words in the policy and this will guide you to understand what the policy desires. Then it comes to psychological injury – look for key words like: ‘vulnerable’, ‘human’, ‘person’, ‘fallible’, ‘mistake’, ‘learning’ and ‘listening’, and see what you find. Then count the mechanistic language and words of objectivisation in the policy and do a comparison. What does it tell you about the policy? What does it tell you about safety?
One of the foundation texts for Pastoral Care and Helping is The Skilled Helper by Gerard Egan (https://cengage.com.au/product/title/the-skilled-helper-a-problem-management-and-o/isbn/9781305865716?OLDEDITION/isbn/9781285065717 ). This book is really the ‘go to in Pastoral Psychology. Egan’s book is based on a problem-centred and pragmatic approach to helping. It’s anthropological assumptions presume fallibility, vulnerability and mortality in both the helper and the helpee. Zero is nonsense to anyone in helping.
The tone of the Egan’s text is about empathy driven by mutuality (there but for the grace of gods go I). The helper does not adopt a position of superiority to the helpee. There is no place in helping for the language of perfection, blaming, projection of error or moralizing. Instead there should be lots of language about moving from ‘being smart to being wise’.
There have been several articles on this site previously about helping:
When it comes to the challenges of psychological injury, mental health issues and social psychological stressors in the workplace, the right approach is not about regulation, policy, advising or policing but rather about ‘helping’.
Whenever I am called to ‘help’ supervisors and managers improve their work in safety, I call upon all the skills that Egan plainly lays out in his book. More on Egan’s book later.
There are no secrets to how to be an effective helper. Some of the best material I give out as helping tools to managers and supervisors are based on work from the following:
- Bolton, R., (1987) People Skills
- Egan, G., (1994) Working The Shadow Side, A Guide to Positive, Behind-the-Scenes Management
- Nichols, M., (2009) The Lost Art of Listening
- Schein, E., (2011) Helping, How to Offer, Give and Receive Help.
- Weisinger, H., (1998) Emotional Intelligence at Work
- And one of my favourites from one of my mentors: Bill Andersen, (2013) walking alongside, a theology for people-helpers.
These are just a few of the many good resources on helping. And in helping there is none of this silly language about ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills. It is much better to talk about ‘people skills’ and ‘human skills’. There is no place in helping for much of the patronizing language that dominates safety discourse. Just have a listen to the language of these women who work in safety to hear how safety could be spoken about if a feminist view was considered:
It is so interesting, all this concern about mental health in the safety industry and so little discourse about ‘wisdom’, ‘helping’, ‘serving’, ‘relationships’ and ‘empathy’. A good example of just how impoverished the industry is in this regard is to look at the many programs for first-responders and incident investigators on the market that include no mention of training in pastoral care or the skills of helping. Interestingly, one of the most popular articles ever published on this blog site was on a wise, caring and helping approach to mental health:
This included some very practical tips on helping and empathizing in mental health issues at work.
When it comes to the issue of suicide problems in the risk and safety industry amplify. When an industry thinks it is wise to use language such as ‘dumb ways to die’ (https://safetyrisk.net/dumb-ways-to-die-doesnt-work/; https://safetyrisk.net/dumb-ways-to-die-and-a-strange-sense-of-success/; https://safetyrisk.net/promoting-dumb-anxiety-and-harm-in-the-name-of-good/), it really does have a problem.
When it comes to suicide, language and discourse are critical. This was recently demonstrated by comprehensive research published by Mindframe (http://www.mindframe-media.info/for-media/reporting-mental-illness). People in safety would do well to attend to these resources and learn to speak a new language and discourse about the risk of suicide. On things is for sure: tokenistic questions and simplistic strategies are a disaster in tackling the challenges of suicide ideation.
However, back to Egan and The Skilled Helper. If one is seeking to be professional and to ‘help’, put away your WHS regulation, standards and policies because there is nothing there to ‘help you’. Instead, have a look at Egan’s ‘Curriculum for Helpers (p. 16). (There is nothing like this in any safety curriculum). And consider that ‘helping’ is a messy activity. When it comes to human helping all the safety language about ‘zero’, ‘intolerance’, ‘compliance’ and ‘prediction’ are nothing short of totally delusional. Instead, have a look at Egan’s Skilled-helper Model (pp. 24-38) (http://highgatecounselling.org.uk/members/certificate/CT1W3%20Paper%202.pdf) and try to apply it to how you engage others at work.