The Power in Helping

The Power in Helping

We are here to helpI wonder if one of the greatest privileges and opportunities we may have as a human being is to be either the recipient, or giver of, ‘help’.

Being the recipient of help may be as simple as someone picking up something that we’ve dropped on the ground, through to being supported and ‘met’ after the loss of a loved one or during a relationship break up.

The giving of help on the other hand may be to work side by side with someone on a task, through to coaching a work colleague or friend through a challenging situation.

Of course, there are many, many more examples of how help is given or received.

It would seem then that helping would always be a good thing right….. or is it? Could helping someone be a bad thing? Or, are these even the right questions to be considering when contemplating the topic of ‘help’?

As I sit here tonight, thinking and reflecting on the theme of helping, I realise, like most things in life, that there is more to helping than an approach that might consider it as either good or bad. Perhaps, like so many other facets of life, we need to better understand the paradoxical nature of helping? When we consider things from this perspective, we open up a whole new thinking of how helping others may impact on relationships. This may not be obvious if our thinking is limited to the binary method of good and bad.

For example, I wonder if we consider the significant power that can be shifted when a helping relationship is established?

There can be great power in helping others, however, do we also understand, and are we cognisant of how this power may work? Further, do we reflect on how the power in helping may impact on our relationships if it is not considered and respected?

Edgar Schein in his book Helping (p.30, 2011) provides a great Chapter titled The Inequalities and Ambiguities of the Helping Relationship, in which he provides some great thinking fodder to better understand ‘helping’ and in particular the how power may play out in the offering and receiving of help.

In the book, Schein talks of the ‘one downness’ for those seeking help, where he explains;

“Helping situations are intrinsically unbalanced and role ambiguous. Emotionally and socially, when you ask for help you are putting yourself ‘one down’” (p.31)

This idea of ‘one down’ refers to the status in a relationship where the help-seeker is seen to be one step below the person whom the help is being sought from. Schein offers that “needing help often feels demeaning” (p. 32).

You can probably understand this yourself if you reflect on a situation where you have sought help. Perhaps when you asked a question of someone or where you sought assistance for something that you could not do yourself, or where you have been ‘down and out’ and in need of a friend? How did you feel in these situations? Did you have the feeling of being ‘one down’?

Schein also refers to the ‘one upnness’ of helping;

“Being thrust into the role of helper is immediately a again in status and power – literally if I help someone who has fallen, or symbolically if I am a counsellor, consultant, or coach who is being asked to provide wisdom and expertise to solve a problem”

Have you ever felt ‘one up’ when in the position of offering or providing help? Can you recognise the power in helping that may exist when you are the one with something to give?

Schein’s book is a great reflective resource, and I like his summary of the power of helping;

“…at the beginning, every helping relationship is a state of imbalance. The client is one down and therefore vulnerable; the helper is one up and therefore powerful” (p. 35)

If you’re not so into reading, or don’t have access to Schein’s book, you can watch a short Youtube clip where Edgar Schein talks on the topic, and the book. I found Schein’s thinking useful in order to reflect on how I go about offering and receiving help, and in particular where the power sits in helping relationships.

So how may this play out in our relationships at work and what could this mean in risk and safety?

We often hear people talking about the risk and safety industry as being a ‘helping’ industry. There can be many examples of how people in risk and safety ‘help’, including; through educating, coaching and ‘meeting’.

I wonder though, do we take enough time to reflect on the power in helping? How might ‘one upnness’ and ‘one downness’ play out in our work? If we are the one providing the help, are we aware of the power of this?

I suspect far too often in risk and safety that we may not recognise the power we exert when we seek to provide ‘help’ to others. I’ve seen this when policing takes precedence over understanding, and when obedience to rule is favoured over ‘autonomy support’ (Deci, 1995).

At the same time, I ruminate on whether we let our pride, and perhaps even arrogance, get in the way of seeking help when we are out of our depth? This may be particularly the case when it comes to understanding people, risk and decision making; all topics that are not well considered in typical risk and safety curriculums (for example see; and therefore are not well understand by many in risk and safety.

Have you ever thought about this yourself? What are your experiences of the power in helping? Can you think of some ways that you can be more mindful of the power that you might have, and what this might do in your relationships when offering help? Are you willing to expose yourself to the the scary world of vulnerability in order to be the recipient of help?

How does this play out in your world?

Do we understand the power in helping?



Author: Robert Sams

Phone: 0424 037 112



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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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