We’ve all experienced helping, and most of us have been on both ends of it. It’s a baffling fact of human nature, however, that our generous efforts to assist often lead to rejection, frustration, or even resentfulness. Why is it that our attempts to give (or to receive) the help that is needed and even solicited often end up unappreciated? In Helping, Edgar Schein gives us the clues we need to sort through this puzzle. Schein refers to his training in Social Relations, which incorporates sociology and anthropology:
“I have always felt that these two disciplines were underutilized in our social and psychological analyses of social phenomena…. It is my view that… the key to understanding a relationship such as helping is to look at it from a cultural and sociological view.” And so he does, setting out a theory of helping behavior that incorporates the reality of human experience that is not quite as simple as it might first seem.
Schein begins with an overview of the many forms of helping behavior - giving directions to a tourist, explaining a concept to a student, offering assistance to someone in crisis, diagnosing an illness and prescribing the treatment - as examples. His purpose is to demonstrate the broad and profound nature of helping behavior; indeed, his coverage of the topic shows just how pervasive helping behavior is throughout every culture. In fact, while traveling through the emotional and cultural dynamics of helping behavior, Schein points out that “all human relationships are about status positioning.” In other words, every interaction results in a gain or loss, with gains providing a sense of success and accomplishment. An attempt to help others achieve gain –the desired outcome when we offer assistance—should result in a gain for everyone involved. When our attempts at helping are rejected, however, we lose.
Schein argues that every helping event is “unbalanced and ambiguous” and therefore threatens to create a loss for one or more of the participants. “Needing help often feels demeaning,” he writes. “It is a loss of independence to have someone else advise you, heal you … even serve you.” If being asked to help provides us with a gain in status, then asking for help indicates inability to help ourselves and is, of course, a loss of status.
It is possible, says Schein, to approach helping behavior in a way that will result in gain, or at least prevent loss, but the responsibility falls to the helper who must establish a balance early on. The helper does this by choosing a role that will guide the relationship – expert, doctor, or consultant—and by knowing when and how to switch roles to be most effective. Schein is generous with examples and explanations of these roles and how best to play each, even including a series of assessment questions to monitor the process.
Schein’s examination of the complex maneuvers required for helping is thorough and brings to light the sort of social, cultural, and individual limitations that sabotage our attempts to be useful. Helping concludes with principles and tips to improve our ability to give and to receive help. Know your intention before offering, giving, or receiving help, he advises. Be sure you understand what is really wanted. Be aware of the role you are playing and whether it is appropriate to the situation.
The way in which Helping is laid out is a perfect example of practicing what the author preaches. His tone, while formal, is never condescending. Rather, Schein takes the appropriate role of consultant, laying out information clearly and with a naturally progressive structure. What he shares in this book is a rational approach to improved relations between giver and recipient that should be required reading for health care professionals, counselors, advocates, and anyone else in the service professions.