Being a Helper

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 7) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for I am most grateful.

Regarding being a helper, theoretically it’s enough to listen!

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We are often most helpful when we are just listening. When others share their feelings with us, it is very easy to want to help them so badly that we give them good advice, take over their problem or—if its bad enough—try and take their minds off the situation. However, the most useful thing we can do is keep quiet, show them we care by the way we listen and attend to them and let them use us as a sounding board to vent off their feelings.

Being there for someone

One of the best ways in which we can help others when they have a problem is just to listen and act as a sounding board for their thoughts and feelings. This means caring enough about the person to put aside all thoughts of ourselves and concentrate our whole attention and awareness on them, in an open and caring way. The people we tend to find it easiest to talk to about our deepest fears and worries are those who don’t talk back to us very much.  Mostly they just listen and we go away feeling that we have really been heard and understood.

What these people are doing is allowing us to speak our worries freely without putting in their own thoughts and feelings to get in our way. Although they are often silent we know from the expression on their face and how they sit or stand that they are giving us their complete attention.


They show their caring, acceptance and trust to us and feeling this from them, we can let go of some of our fear and share a lot more of what is troubling us than we would otherwise do.  In doing so, we can see ourselves and our problem more clearly.  Doing and saying nothing but just silently being there, attentive and caring, can be the most profound help that we can ever give to another human being.  Yet, although we are taught how to talk, read and write, very rarely are we taught to listen, despite the fact that it is a communication skill like all the others.

Research has shown that people who are thought of as very good listeners tend to “match” the person who is talking to them. This matching behaviour includes what they do with their body and their gestures, the use of similar words and phrases and, more subtly, mirroring thought processes. Most of us do this to some degree, even if only at an unconscious level, and the skill can be developed considerably with practice.  Matching has the effect of putting the other person more at their ease and making them feel comfortable and accepted for who and what they are. This feeling of safety gives them the freedom to explore their problems more deeply and productively.


 The essential ingredients for a helping relationship

When professionals first started to train people as helpers, they spent years noticing how people who were naturally helpful behaved. In this way they identified five major ingredients that we can all usefully employ in helping both adults and  children:

1. Acceptance

Difficulty with acceptance is often bound up with issues of control.  We may find it difficult to accept others if we have the need to control or judge the behaviour or feelings especially when they are feelings that don’t fit with our picture of the world.  If we can cultivate a sense of impartiality, or an awareness of a clear distance between “me” and “you”, we will find it easier to accept others fully, and to accept what they say without judgement.

2. Care

Even as we are able to accept others and what is happening for them, without judgement, we need to be able to genuinely care about them enough to be able to want to help them both now with their problem and in the long term by helping them learn how to help themselves. This can be particularly difficult when dealing with those closest to us. It is one of the most difficult things a parent can do for instance, to watch while their children learn `from their own mistakes’.

3. Understanding

We can never truly experience things in exactly the same way as someone else – but to be understanding we need to get as close to this as we possibly can. Part of being a helper is taking the time almost to think ourselves into someone else’s shoes, imagining or visualising what might they be feeling like right now,  not in order to present them with our ready made solution but o be able to work alongside them in their task to find their own.


4. Trust

None of the above is a lot of use if we do not believe that the other person is actually capable of understanding their own feelings and issues, finding their own answers and looking after themselves. We need to be able to trust them to help themselves, which may or may not include asking us for assistance along the way. As we trust them more, they will come to trust themselves more and will grow – learning from their mistakes- to be more and more capable.

5. Being congruent Being congruent means that all the different parts of you match. They are all expressing the same thing. These parts include:

  •  Tone of voice.
  • Facial expression.
  • Posture and body language.
  • Internal feelings and sensations.
  • Thoughts and beliefs.
  • The words that are spoken.
  • The actions you perform.

For example, if you were angry, you would look and sound angry, you would be thinking angry thoughts and you would be expressing yourself verbally in an angry way.  No-one would be in any doubt about the fact that you were ANGRY! Being congruent involves:

Experiencing – having thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, physical tensions       

Awareness – knowing what you are feeling and thinking    

Communication – being able to communicate these things to others.

Quite often we are not congruent. For example, we may feel angry in our  minds and bodies but try not to show it. This is called a mixed message and these can cause confusion in other people because they can sense that something isn’t “straight”. Children are especially sensitive to mixed messages and may behave in negative ways when they are receiving them from you because they cannot cope with the confusion they are experiencing. We can be incongruent in three ways … we will do some more of this in the next posting!

There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”. Download chapter 1 free now!

There are helpful free downloads at:


Problem Ownership

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 6) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which I am most grateful.

Problem ownership

Problems that inevitably occur within most relationships can be much easier to tackle if we are familiar with the concept of problem ownership. This means stepping back when a problem begins to arise and asking yourself: `”Who is most upset?” or “Who needs help first?” and “Whose problem is this?”

If a person is not getting something they need, they will feel uncomfortable and get upset-how upset depends on the importance of the need. But if their behaviour in fulfilling this need doesn’t interfere with the others, or prevent others from meeting their own needs, then the only problem is the satisfaction of the need – the person owns the problem.


If a person is managing to satisfy their needs but the way they have chosen interferes with others and does prevent others from meeting their own needs,  then the other people are likely to get upset – they own the problem. When everybody is managing to meet their needs without interfering with anybody else, there is no problem!

Quite often we become emotionally involved in a problem that is not ours and this reduces our ability to cope, think straight or help the person with the problem. This happens more often in close relationships where our loved ones’ distress, anger, confusion, etc. is more likely to trigger our own emotional patterns from the past.


By asking ourselves the above questions we can figure out who has the problem and from there we can make clearer decisions about whether we need to be involved and what action to take if we do.

It sometimes happens that we ‘take on’ the problems of others – always with the best intentions, and because we most probably genuinely care about them. Often we have a sense of responsible for the other person, as a parent, or boss, or older sibling.  But in certain cases this is quite inapropriate.  Not only do we load ourselves with a burden we don’t really need (no doubt having enough of our own!) we also deprive those whose problem we take on, of the sense of achievement that comes from sorting out a problem, and we encourage their continued dependence and an attitude of dependency.

There is a fine line between truly helping a person towards finding their solutions, and thereby increasing their self-worth, and “doing it for them”, which keeps them powerless.

A matter of priority

There will be occasions when it isn’t clear who owns the problem. For example:

“When I came upon a road accident, I knew the people needed my help, but I had to deal with my own distress before I could be of any use.”

“A week after I had been promoted to manager, I received a list of the redundancies in my division.  I was surprised, and more than a little uncomfortable, when Jed, who was on my list, came to see me.  He proceeded to tell me about the difficulties he had been having in his marriage, which had finally come to a head, and he was going through a rather messy divorce.  He asked for my support.  I did what I could to reassure him, but felt awful, and had to see my manager for help in dealing with the situation.”

“My son was upset because his grandmother had repeatedly promised him a particular present and failed yet again to deliver. Before I could help him think about what to do with what should have been his problem, I needed to unload my share of the problem – which I did by telling him how annoyed I was at my mother for breaking her promises. That freed me then to help him.”

In these situations, both parties involved had a problem, and a series of solutions had to be worked out, prioritising needs and solutions.  In the first, the person arriving on the scene of the accident had to deal with their distress first. In the second, the new manager had to offer what support he could, before seeking help himself. The parent in the third case, managed to deal with both problems at the same time by exressing how they felt as part of the same process of listening to and dealing with the distress of the son.

Some people in these three situations would not have experienced any needs of their own and so would have been able to concentrate straightaway on the needs of the other. Others may have felt themselves being sucked into the problem and taken the decision to stay back and not get emotionally involved.

More problem ownership

The two most important things about the concept of problem ownership are: it helps you to identify how to act, if at all; and it encourages you to allow others responsibility for their own problems. The important issue is to differentiate between your own needs and the needs of others.  With your own problems you need skills that help you assert your own needs.  When  you are dealing with others who have problems you need  helping skills which show caring and support for the other person whilst also enabling them to find their own solutions to their problems.


A helping relationship is one in which a person helps another to develop and grow as a human being. All your relationships can have this element in them at some time – relationships with your loved ones, the people you work with, even with people you don’t like or people who are complete strangers to you. We have in our society many “helping” professions in which people are trained in some way to help others in need.  But many studies show that it is from within our own circle of family, friends and acquaintances that we are most likely to get the help we really need.

Most of us have known, at some time or another, someone that we could “talk” to, who “understood” us and who we felt “safe” with.  This sort of person is straight, honest and open with us; we trust them to tell us the truth.  They care about us and don’t get sucked into our problems. They are not depressed by our depression or fearful of our fear.  They empathise with how we feel and what is happening to us and that helps us to understand ourselves and our problems better. We are not threatened by them, they don’t judge us and they accept the differences and changes in us.

These are qualities that we all display towards someone at some time in our lives and they are the qualities that are most likely to provide worthwhile help and support to a person with a problem.


There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”.  Download chapter 1 free now!

There are helpful free downloads at:

Needs behind behaviour

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 5) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which we are most grateful.

Needs behind behaviour

Everything we do in life is geared to meet some need. There are a limited number of needs that all people share. On the simplest level, these include things like the need for food, shelter, sleep, security, safety, love, friendship, exercise for the body and the mind. As we meet these basic needs so we can begin to work towards others that are more to do with our self-esteem, creative ability and being part of the world we live in a way that counts for something.

Acceptable and unacceptable behaviour

The ways people choose to try and meet their needs may or may not interfere with other people. If they don’t interfere, they will be seen as acceptable, if they do, they will be seen as unacceptable.  There are four factors that may affect how accepting of the behaviour of others we are:


  • how we are feeling
  • who is doing the behaviour
  •  where they are doing it
  • when they are doing it.

Who owns a problem

If everyone is having a good time and is quite happy, there is no problem. If the people around us behave in ways that affect our needs, we are displeased and have a problem. If we behave in ways that affect their needs, they are displeased and have a problem. Before we start to sort out our problems and help them sort out theirs, it is useful to make sure we know who owns the problem.

We are not our behaviour

It is very common to identify ourselves by the job we do, the way we look, the background we came from, or whether we are rich or poor, so it can be very difficult for us to be ourselves as we really are. We are individuals in our own right, regardless of our roles, our status in society or our possessions. Most of us have a deep-rooted desire to be loved for ourselves, rather than for our looks or our connections or whatever.

Yet very often we get stereotyped with a particular label and then people are no longer open to seeing us any other way. We have all, at some time, probably been treated as just a woman or a typical male or too old to understand or too young to understand or always hysterical or rational or any one of the thousands of labels that can be used to stop us being seen as complex individuals. This is the process that begins very early in life when children begin to be labelled for their behaviour.

E.g.  – She is:-

quiet, good, studious, helpful, kind, bossy, rude, stubborn, stupid, clumsy, thick, etc.

 If the label is used often enough, it sticks, and she becomes a neatly labelled package from which she cannot escape; the label follows her through school, work, marriage and parenthood to her death. If we are able to distinguish between the individual and the behaviour, it becomes easier to avoid the trap of labelling.  `I didn’t like the way you did that’ might then replace `You idiot! You’ve made a right mess of that!’

Behaviour can be learned, changed and developed. Love, on the other hand, is unconditional and says: “I might not like what you do sometimes but I love, support and cherish you.”


Behaviour and needs

American psychologist Abraham Maslow describes human needs as falling into five categories, as represented in the pyramid below …

Maslow believed that, until our most basic needs are met (level 1), we are unable to aspire to those on level 2.

Until we feel a physical sense of stability and safety (level 2), we are unable to form the ties that enable us to feel emotionally secure (level 3) and so on, one by one, up to level 5.

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For example, if a little girl felt unprotected and insecure, on level 2 of the pyramid, she would be unhappy, insecure and fearful most of the time and so be unable to make friends and take the first step in reaching out towards others, which are the belongingness needs on level three of the pyramid.

In other words, meeting our needs successfully at each level leads us up the pyramid to becoming what Maslow called a “self-actualised person”, one who is self-motivated, successful and competent, and always reaching out into the world to grow, change and experience new things.

The same needs

As human beings we all have the same needs and we behave in ways we think will help us get those needs met. This is normal and healthy. But people who are for some reason continually unable to get their needs met may resort to more and more extreme behaviour. While this behaviour may be undesirable or inappropriate, it does not mean that the underlying need is wrong.

For example:

  • With a young family to support and things being rather uncertain at work, Thomas feels under extreme pressure.  He finds himself contemplating ways to `end it all’.
  •  Twenty-year-old Lorraine needs love, warmth and comfort, so she gets a sore throat and has to go to bed for two days.
  •  ŸTeenage Sally establishes her independence by staying out all night without telling her parents where she is.
  •  Six-year-old Adam needs to develop and test out his sense of balance and co-ordination, so he climbs trees and climbing frames to heights that scare his mother.

In these examples the actual needs are valid human needs but the behaviours used to fulfil them may cause problems for the individual and for others round them.

Acceptable and unacceptable behaviour

Behaviour that interferes with us and our needs we think of negatively; behaviour that doesn’t interfere with us is thought of positively. In this way, we tend to view behaviour as either good or bad, nice or naughty, quiet or annoying etc.

It is much more useful to look at behaviour in terms of whether we find it acceptable or unacceptable, for by doing this we are not labelling the individual or the behaviour (as good or bad or whatever) but looking at our own needs and feelings at the time. Being clearer in your own mind about what you find acceptable at any given time can lead to a far better understanding between yourself and others.


Just what behaviour we find unacceptable at any given time depends on several factors:

  • how  we feel at the time – when we are feeling well and happy it is likely that we will find far more behaviour acceptable than when we are tired, cross and upset.
  • who is doing the behaviour – you probably like some people more than others and allow them more freedom with your time, space and attention.  And you also have different expectations of different people.  You will probably be quite happy for your partner to snuggle up next to you as you sit on the bus, but will have a different reaction if a total stranger did the same.
  • where the behaviour is taking place has an effect on whether you find it acceptable or not; you may really like your child’s gymnastic ability but not at Granny’s funeral.
  • when the behaviour takes place – jibes and teasing from your mates over drinks in the evening are likely to be taken in fun, but the same comments to next morning at work may well be offensive!

Because of these factors there is not a hard and fast rule that you can follow regarding your response to behaviour.


There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”.  Download chapter 1 free now!

There are helpful free downloads at: