When does helping help?

When does helping help?

The various forms of Organisational Development, such as coaching, teambuilding, facilitation, consulting, leadership development and others, are forms of helping. Seen systemically, helping can strengthen, but it can also weaken – in part because it can establish dependence, and also the inner movement of wanting to help can put us above our clients, and therefore subtly infantilise them. The resentment and resistance this generates can subvert our heartfelt intention to help, and can entangle us as coaches and consultants in the client’s system and/or reactivate unprocessed issues from our own family of origin.

Bert Hellinger, the originator of Constellations work, describes this and related dynamics in what he calls ‘the Orders of Helping’. He argues that the basis of all helping is the parent/child relationship. As children, we take so much from our parents that the impulse to give also develops. So helping originates from a need to balance giving and taking. However, in professional relationships, this model of exchange is dangerous:

Why? If we help people in this way, then we are big and they are small. They are needy and we give them what they need. And soon a very strange relationship develops… [When] someone presents himself or herself as needy, then they develop a transference towards the helper, like a child towards a parent… Then [through counter transference] the therapist, by behaving like a better parent, becomes an enemy of the client because a client deep down in his heart is always loyal to his parents1.

To propagate the harmony of giving and taking in professional relationships, Hellinger suggests five ‘Orders of Helping’:

  1. Sometimes we might feel compelled to give what we don’t have. If the coach or consultant recognises the limits of helping, s/he must refuse inappropriate expectations of helping and must, even in the face of misery, give up the idea of helping. For example, we cannot give false promises of security or success in a journey of personal or strategic change. Giving out of our own unmet needs is rarely effective.
  2. Our helping gains strength when we confront and accept the limitations of the situation with our client. We lose strength when we try to do too much, for example when we try to go beyond what the situation allows not because of what the client has asked for but because of our own inability to face someone’s suffering, or our impatience with the loyalties or developmental levels of those we want to help. Then the help/need relationship is reversed and we become the ones in need and our clients give to us if they accept our offer of help.
  3. Helpers have to reject being pushed in to the role of parent-substitute. We need to be alert to how our clients might inadvertently parentify us and infantilise themselves, and so engaging with stakeholders as adults is vital to successful interventions. We fall in to this ‘parenting’ trap, for example, when we try to over-protect our clients or fail to name a difficult truth.
  4. Coaches and consultants need to remember that whoever needs help is always part of a greater whole. When we take a systems perspective rather than an individual client perspective, we can include those who have been overlooked or suffered at the hands of the organisation. We ignore this Order of Helping when we define too narrowly who needs to be considered to help resolve client difficulties.
  5. The basis of helping is a respectful relationship with our client just as s/he is, as well as with those our client dismisses or judges. If we focus on our own moral biases and ethical preferences, or adopt ‘public opinion’, we judge our clients or their stakeholders and our helping becomes ineffective. This Order of Helping therefore implies love for every person just as s/he is.

For our helping to be truly effective, therefore, we need to master two paradoxical inner movements: first, of focusing on the person we are helping while drawing back and freeing ourselves from our personal feelings and reactions to the client’s story; and second, offering ourselves as supports without wanting to achieve anything specific – so we let go of our own intentions, wishes and hopes and remain unassuming. Our clients can then retain their dignity and are thrown back on their resources to take responsibility for their own actions.


1. Hellinger, B. (2003) The Orders of Helping, in www.hellinger.com. Translated and edited by Tombleson, S. and ten Herkel, J.

Posted in Coaching Constellations consultancy organisation development on Sunday, Oct 30th, 2016

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