I was just trying to help! What went wrong?

July 11, 2017|Lisa Horn

Opportunities to help others abound, but knowing what kind of help to provide can drastically affect the outcome. You may find yourself helping a mentee to develop in her career, helping a co-worker with a project, or helping a member of your network find the resources he needs. Follow these steps to set the right tone when trying to help someone.

How many times have you tried to help someone and then something went terribly wrong? The misunderstanding potentially led to a broken relationship and hurt feelings. Maybe the person you were trying to help became angry or lashed out at you. Perhaps the person you were trying to help didn’t realize help was being offered?

What if the person you were trying to help did not even want help! Well there is an answer for you. What if you could follow four simple steps to ensure that you offer help in the right way, not only at work, but at home or with your friends?

Cultivate a helping relationship

During my career, I have had the gift of developing leaders for multiple organizations. One of the most important skills a leader needs to be proficient at is knowing how to develop a helping relationship.

Whether you’re in a management position or you’re part of a team, we offer help all the time, both professionally and personally. On numerous occasions during coaching sessions, I have pointed leaders to Edgar H. Schein’s book, “Helping,” to reflect on where they could have went wrong when a helping situation implodes. In the book, Schein outlines important concepts that the person offering help must keep in mind for the interaction and relationship to be successful.

As the person offering help you must:

  • Maintain equal status with the person asking for help
  • Choose the right role
  • Ask questions, seek to understand and listen
  • Ensure that you do not take the problem from the person you are helping

Steps to creating a helping relationship

Following Schein’s concepts can help you keep a mentoring or helping relationship steady and sound. Let’s break down the specific points you need to keep in mind as you’re moving through the process of helping someone.

Establish equilibrium

It can be difficult for many people to ask for help, and doing so may make the requestor feel as though they’re weak or unable to address the situation on their own. However, for the helping relationship to be successful, both people in the relationship must maintain equal status. When someone asks for help they are not weak so, as the helper, you must be aware of your possible perceived elevation in status. Find ways to allow the requestor to contribute by asking them to offer information and direct the process so you are not taking power from them.

Consider your role

As the person helping, choose the right role. What is the requestor actually looking for? Do they want you to step in and take control or do they just need a sounding board? Are you going to tell them what to do, diagnose the situation or ask questions so that they can solve the problem? Choosing the right approach up front can affect how the rest of the interaction plays out.

Do your homework

When you are helping someone, seek to understand first. Ask a lot of questions. Listen closely. This is one way of effectively balancing the power in a helping relationship. Rather than pushing your advice through like a steam engine, take a moment to step back and let the requestor have input into the problem solving process. This keeps the requestor fully engaged and contributes to a healthy, collaborative relationship. This also allows you to obtain the right information to find more effective solutions.

Maintain a diplomatic approach

As the person helping, do not take their problem from them. Help them see and discover the problem, and to solve the problem. While you may be involved in helping to solve an issue, ultimately, the requestor still owns the problem. Even with the right information, you will never have the same experiences, background and understanding of the situation as the requestor.

Putting the concepts into action

Every time I have asked leaders to reflect on ineffective helping situations in light of the information from Schein’s book, they learned they did not consider one of these concepts and this omission led to the misunderstanding or fallout. The majority of the time the failures were related to the helper taking on too much control in positioning themselves as an expert, rather than asking questions and listening. In their minds they were being helpful, but instead the person they were trying to help felt humiliated or inferior and not understood.

Think about a time when you tried to help someone and it did not work out for either of you at work or at home. Did you consider all four of these concepts? Which one did you miss? What did you learn? What will you do differently the next time?

For additional assistance on building a helping relationship or leadership coaching, contact Lisa Horn or another member of Schenck’s team at 800-236-2246.


Lisa Horn, CEPA, senior manager – operations consulting, has nearly 20 years of experience leading continuous improvement initiatives in a variety of industries. She advises senior leaders on strategy and aligns their vision, mission and goals to effectively execute plans that drive organizational success. Lisa has a rich history of developing leaders and providing leadership coaching.