Thursday, 12 February 2015

The art of helping

I have been re-reading a wonderful book called 'Zen in the Art of Helping' written by David Brandon, published in 1976. Everyone has at some point been both a helper and been helped. We know what good helping is like and we can also tell when some well intentioned person is actually hindering rather than helping us. Brandon's essential point is that the best kind of helper is someone who is wholly present for you - not distracted by other concerns, not needing something from you, not simply following a procedure but willing to enter into your world and try to understand it with you.

David Brandon was a mental health social worker and social work teacher. He was writing shortly after the creation of local authority Social Services Departments (in 1972) when it seemed possible that social work could transform society. He would not recognise the sort of social work practised in local authorities today. Each person in need is processed to 'assess' their need or the 'risk of harm' they present to themselves and others; decide whether or not their circumstances meet the 'threshold' for 'intervention' and if so, 'allocate' a 'package' of support. Bureaucracy replaces the human, helping relationship. The best that can be said for it is it protects the worker and attempts to impose fair treatment for each service user.

Tolstoy wrote the story of an Emperor who wishes to know three things:

What is the best time to do each thing?
Who are the most important people to work with?
What is the most important thing to do?

The sages and philosophers are unable to answer these questions satisfactorily so the Emperor himself goes to visit a hermit in the mountains. The hermit does not answer his questions but in the course of events the Emperor comes to understand these answers:

The most important person to work with is the one in front of you.
The most important thing to do is to make them happy.
And the best time is now.

How do you do that? Well, the psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom said 'It's the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals.' Which brings us right back to being wholly present for the person in need.

The voluntary sector does not have a monopoly on good helping but it is common in our sector. It is precious and we must not take it for granted. Pressures of money and time could easily extinguish it and we would end up no better than the public services. As voluntary sector managers we must ensure that we protect and enhance the conditions that enable good helping to bloom.

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