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No amount of skill or quality of technique is sufficient to help people with problems in living, unless there is a trust relationship that sanctions the Mentor to give help. It is impossible to simply invent such a relationship; it pivots on who you are much more than what you do. However, even people with character sometime make mistakes in relating which destroys this critical path to helping.

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

As we begin to define the principles and values upon which a human services system might operate, we must face several basics. The first is uncertainty. Human behavior is unpredictable. Each individual chooses his or her attitude and action in the given moment and context. There is no action/reaction in the generally accepted sense of the concept. Yet, paradoxically, others influence all human behavior. These two mutually exclusive concepts present us with the environment within which we must function.

This uncertainty suggests that we cannot assume that simply carrying out a technique will cause the client to become somehow ‘better’. There is much complexity in human behavior and commitment and dedication are not always easy to measure. Further, our philosophy suggests that people ‘choose’ who they are. We cannot coerce them into being the person we would like them to be, we can only make such choices ‘informed choices’ through supplying additional information about how to know yourself – ultimately, the client will choose to accept or deny a new self.

We must also overcome our desire to comfort. Emotional stability and security is based upon a degree of tension. It is the unsettledness that demands that we reach and grow.

We make certain presumptions about how to operate. In strategic planning for business, there is a construct called the driving force. The driving force is defined as the key determinant in decision making about the future. In business, it is the critical edge that is used to decide whether the business endeavor will accept or reject an opportunity. It is supported by what are called ‘secondary scanners’ or secondary factors that help to determine whether the action suggested is appropriate.

The basic decision-making driving force of our perspective is focused on the power of the person with problems in living and their preferences regarding their person, their relationships and their prospects. The life force, which directs their actions, must be tied to our actions. Thus, we presume that:

People always make behavioral decisions that are instinctively aimed toward becoming who they were meant to become.

This is the equivalent of a plant growing toward the sun. You can place a rock over the seedling, and it will grow around. Place several rocks, and assuming you have not killed the plant, it will continue to reach for the sun, although it will become quite convoluted in the process. People also grow towards become human beings, but often rocks block the way. They become equally convoluted in the process. Nonetheless, it is their desire to become that is the force for change. It is the Mentor’s function to try to remove the rocks.

It comes down to a fundamental question of whether a person is determined by or determines, his/her own existence. This core question is the critical variable to the shaping of our efforts. Our belief is that the person is an interactive entity whose properties [including rocks] are the product of that interaction. We have an understanding that “a stimulus does not cause a process on an inert system; but that it can merely modify existing processes in an autonomically active system which is constantly directed toward the realization of certain goals and values” [Overton]. And perhaps, most importantly, a belief that the goals of all individuals are the same: they desire success, happiness, power, dignity and respect.

Therefore, we wish to create a human service delivery system which is based upon a fundamental belief in the active developmental qualities of human beings; an organismic worldview. There are two basic worldviews of human beings; the organismic and the mechanistic. “The basic metaphor for the organismic model is the living organism such as perhaps a plant, and the metaphor for the mechanistic model is a simple machine such as a windup watch…” [Overton].

Out of this organismic perspective we state the basic building block or fundamental principle:

Change initiative lies with the client; not the helper.

The wish, power, and ability to begin and follow through with a process of change are solely within the purview of the person being served and the helper can usurp neither the responsibility nor the authority.

If we can accept this as a fundamental principle, a building block that can neither be proven or disproved, but is accepted as a basic tenet of our new perspective, we can begin to develop the other principles which can drive a new human service system and define the roles of the people who work within it.

Of the five basic models of behavior management [biomedical, psychodynamic, cognitive, behavioral, and humanistic/existential] it is the cognitive with its focus on personal understanding and decision-making, and the humanistic/existential with its focus on the will and responsibility, which are the closest to our fundamental truth. Certain aspects of the other models become more or less usable. The biomedical model and the psychodynamic models however, become mostly untenable. This is a fundamental way of looking at the world and if this is incoherent to the clinicians, it is useless to go on.

It cannot be fudged, you cannot believe that both the mechanistic [medical] and the organismic perspective has merit; one must decide. If you cannot decide that may be okay for the moment for analytic work takes information and evidence, but you need to seek a method to overcome this cognitive dissonance. If you are a believer in the fundamental principle, the following material may have relevance to your future practice. If you do not accept this principle, what follows will probably only frustrate and anger you.

It is a little bit like an optical illusion. If you cannot see the ‘other’ picture, you get frustrated, angry and a little embarrassed. Once you see it, you can always draw on it and find the new way of looking at the illusion. But it will often be hard and you will need to concentrate; be aware.

Statements or beliefs such as “doing for one’s own good” cannot discount this driving force. Neither can “they are too disoriented to decide”. These are self-serving statements that do not deal with the basic acceptance of the individual “I” as the force for change. Any decision regarding the acceptability of an intervention must be drawn along this edge.

There are secondary axioms or principles that support the self-determining nature of the fundamental truth and the most important of these can be stated simply:

Unconditional positive regard is attributed to the client [Rogers].

This is an attitude, not a feeling, of a constructive nature towards the person being served, which must emanate from the worker. This attitude acknowledges the dignity of the individual as a responsible person capable of making decision about his/her own life.

It should be clear that this attitude of unconditional positive regard supports and reinforces the power of the individual. It is unrelated to the individual helper’s ‘feelings’ about whether or not the client is ‘capable’ of making decisions. It assumes that the client can, will, and is making such decisions.

There must be a pervading climate of positive expectation.

While it is important to determine that the desired performance is reachable, an overall belief that clients can change and achieve if they desire to do so is critical to the change environment.

Behavior is determined by a combination of forces in the environment and in the individual. Different environments tend to produce different behaviors. Individuals have “psychosocial baggage” from past experiences and a developmental history which has given them a unique set of needs, way of looking at the world, and expectations about how people will treat them.

Each behavior has associated with it, in an individual’s mind, certain outcomes [rewards or punishments]; and each outcome has a value. The decision to try a new or difficult behavior will be associated with the person’s expectation or probability of success.

Part of the personal decision is based on whether others of significance view the potential of success positively. Belief in oneself is highly contingent upon how one perceives others’ belief in them. People inherently tend to underrate or undervalue what others can achieve. People will make decisions about how they will behave contingent upon the way they believe that the behavior will lead to outcomes that will satisfy their needs. Therefore, they are inherently neither motivated nor unmotivated. Motivation depends upon the situation they are in [May – 1983].

The arrow of time must point to the future.

The person in need must be helped to find meaning in future events and prospects, using the “here and now” as the means to reach some future goal.

Interventions that dwell on the past are of far more benefit to the interest and knowledge of the helper than they are to the changing individual. All too often, the future is framed on the past. One must remember that Freud was trying to learn about the dynamics of human psychology as well as offering help. It is the conflict of these two points of view that lead to an inordinate focus on the past.

“One of the more common illusions of Freudian orthodoxy is that the durability of results corresponds to the length of therapy” [Gutheil]. The individual does not receive help by reliving the past, but from finding the courage to live and feel differently in the present and a preferred future.

These are the major principles that underpin the new perspective. There are other axioms of importance: the service must deal with interactions, not insights. How an individual functions with others is the outcome issue. This does not preclude concern about how the individual ‘feels’ about the interaction, but emphasizes the participatory nature of the interaction.

A focus on “real life” issues is also important. We want to help people deal with the problems in living, not some abstract idea drawn from some experience from the past. In like manner activity-oriented, not talk-oriented interventions are more likely to be helpful. “Tell me, I might forget; involve me, I will understand” [Chinese proverb]. This does not mean that we do not talk to our clients or even that such conversations cannot deal with abstract issues. What it does mean is that the essence of our help is in the doing.

These axioms lead to two final powerful principles:

Each individual must be helped to establish an altruistic responsibility.

The egocentric orientation of people with problems in living on themselves continues to support a focus on the problems, not on the solutions. Each of us must believe that we are capable of contributing to the enhancement of others.

What we seek is a social intervention which enables people with problems in living to learn to create and present unique and accurate responses to each particular experience as confronted through the provision of the means [behavior repertoire] and opportunity to work out, find alternatives for, contend with, or, in other self-directed ways, deal with conditions [interpsychic, interpersonal or environmental] which interfere with productive social living. We are governed by the recognition of the individual as a unique and active organism, the social environment as a dynamic force, and the effects of their reciprocal interactions [Buber – 1973].

Finally, the recognition of the person with problems in living as having strengths as well as problems, and the focus on the need for meaning in life leads to a final principle which is concerned with the context of helping:

People learn how to participate in valued settings by participating in valued settings.

Moving people to “programs” in order to work with them is inappropriate. Homogeneous groupings of people with problems in living takes away the socialization opportunities afforded to others. The attribution of such removal is salient in itself; but the overriding concern is that people do not learn to participate in society by not participating. They may need supports, even intensive supports, but they need to experience real life as others do.

Despite the fact that recent moves have been developed to implement some of these principles, these attempts continue to a large extent to be facility or institutionally based. The concept of “community based” is too often understood as having the institution located in the community. It is difficult to perceive of the fundamental truth being implemented in a large facility or program with many impersonal procedures. While it may be beneficial to sensitize the institution, this misses the point. The critical aspect is that the individual would have to choose to be served in such institutional settings after other options were made available.

Just as the fundamental truth implies that people with severe needs are the same as other people in desires and goals, so too, does it demand that they be “normalized” even while services are being offered. Where people with disabilities are being served is closely tied to one of the most sacred symbols of our mission; least restrictive environments. The “least restrictive environment” as a policy derived from the concept of normalization and was focused toward “maximum feasible integration”. Unfortunately, in practice, it quickly developed into a continuum model, i.e., “from the most to least restrictive”. It thus was used as a standard and guide to legitimize restrictive environments. The concept has also allowed us to confuse segregation and integration on the one hand with intensity of services on the other. “When viewed from this perspective, it follows that people with severe disabilities will require the most restrictive and segregated settings.” “The question has become not whether people with severe disabilities should be restricted, but to what extent” [Taylor – 1988].

While the fundamental truth might allow for institutional settings, it does not allow for restrictive settings. Restrictiveness must be interpreted as something imposed on an individual, not chosen by the individual. From that context, it is unlikely, if not impossible that a new services delivery system could effectively use institutional settings except for people who have already been trained in institutional living.

Even further, it rejects the “readiness” principle which leads to defining the mission in terms of creating “facilities”, first larger ones and then smaller ones, and “programs”, rather than providing services and supports to enable people with problems in living to participate in the same settings used by others. The change environment must have dynamic qualities that enhance the person’s desired preferences for the future.

The Helper

Based upon these values there are certain expectations and requirements regarding the person who gives help.

The helper must establish him/herself as a significant individual in whom the client can trust, as a condition of the relationship, to act in the right or proper way.

This commitment means that the helper, and through him/her, the agency, will do exactly and consistently what they say they will do; although not necessarily what the individual would desire.

This trust is based not upon a personal commitment, but upon the professional commitment of the total organization that it will respond on behalf of the client. In order to accept this, we must also recognize our responsibility to the greater society and articulate to the client exactly when and how we would invoke this potentially contrary commitment and how in doing so, we are responsible to his/her needs. There can be no conflict between our responsibility to society and to the individual. This is an ethical dilemma that demands ethical response.

In the introduction to Buber’s I/Thou, the translator, Walter Kauffman, says something important regarding this concept.

“The basic “I/Thou concept establishes the world of relations. As a thou, I have no right to use the I before me as an object with which I may take liberties.” “It is not for me to play with or manipulate. I am not to use it as a point of departure, or anything else. It is a voice of a person that needs me. I am there to help HIM speak.”

Service delivery designs, which assume the strengths of the client, orient themselves towards a change experience that is a prototype role-learning situation. Thus the helper’s role is, in many ways, a teaching one. Since the client directs the process, the helper must try to Inform and influence, not control. Coercive interventions have no effect other than resistance. The authority to provide services must be sanctioned by the client and it is this sanction that is at the root of the success. Individuals, who sanction dominance, must be helped to seek independence.

The predominant issue that precedes all else in the practitioner attempts to engage the involuntary, “resistant”, “unmotivated”, or “hard to reach” clients is that nothing can be achieved until authority has been granted and influence attained [Goldstein – 1973]. This sanction of the authority of the helper to evoke change is the essence of the trusting, significant relationship.

The extent to which the person with problems in living is open to change corresponds to the extent to which the presence of the helper is recognized, experienced and authorized by the person in need. The helper’s “value and effectiveness is contingent on the extent to which the right to be influential is granted” [Goldstein – 1973].

Thus our help can only be offered when both trust and sanction exist. To attempt to offer the service otherwise is coercive and often met with intransigent resistance. There are other keys to effective helpers.

  • They are enablers: they qualify and empower others to act.
  • They do not judge: They are effectively amoral in their perceptions of the acts of those they serve; listening without judgement and accepting without condemnation. People often do “bad” things in reaction to “bad” things that they perceive having been done to them. Judgements and condemnation reinforce the “righteousness” of their acts. Acceptance offers the potential for re-evaluation and remorse. Otto Rank describes the “love experience” as the acceptance of the other persons will[fullness]. This does not necessarily condone the behavior, but allows for the separation of the behavior from the person.
  • They have no points to defend: defense mechanisms are normal and inherent; they are not professional. They justify our self-importance over others. In the professional relationship, such defense is inexcusable. It denies the right of others to have perceptions, judgements and views that differ from our own. Since we are in the status positions, defense automatically gives offense.
  • They see their status as responsibility rather than as rank or privilege: it is a duty that demands that they give of themselves to exhaustion without expectation of receipt.
  • They believe in the inherent desire of everyone to reach success, happiness, power and status and recognize the need to offer new opportunities and new learning to accomplish such achievement.
  • Their beliefs and actions are at least compatible, if not congruent. They need not be clever, only consistent.
  • They are the equivalent of fiduciaries: they act only on behalf of others, never for the self interest of themselves. Their professional lives are not for themselves, but for others. Personal satisfactions are acquired in personal areas of their lives.

Those attempting to enhance the lives of people with problems in living must:

  • establish a relationship of significance based of bonds of trust inherent in the dignity of risk and the respect for failure as a precursor to growth;
  • support the individual’s efforts to assess themselves in relationship to their potentialities and opportunities through rigorous analysis of personal beliefs and projections;
  • animate through provision of opportunities and encouragement of effort and attempts to practice new thought, feeling and behavior in those areas where personal assessment has identified need for growth; and
  • reinforce the positive of the experience of success and/or failure as a developmental step in the process of life;
  • have a process world view that suggests that human existence, human behavior, or human endeavor is a complex of diverse social/emotional, biological and cognitive adaptations and interactions. Personality integration is the overall creative process of the individual’s adapting and responding to myriad internal and external needs, challenges, crises and changes;
  • have an acceptance of structural cognitive modifiability and view the human organism as open, adaptive and amenable for change. The aim is to modify the individual, emphasizing autonomous and self-regulated change. Intelligence is viewed as a propensity of the organism to modify itself when confronted with the need to do so. It involves the capacity of the individual to be modified by learning and the ability to use whatever modification has occurred for future adjustments. Intelligence is defined as a changeable state rather than an immutable trait. Cognition thus plays a central role in human modifiability.
  • recognize all human beings as persons-in-process. We are ever in the process of experiencing, learning and growing; involved in a constant evolution of higher cognitions and motivations. We are in the process of becoming;
  • value our individual differences. Because of our genetic inheritance, the circumstances of our birth, and our distinct life experiences, the way each of us processes life events is highly individual. How each of us assimilates, accommodates, adapts and responds to life’s experiences reflects our individual differences;
  • value the individual differences of others. Just as we appreciate our own unique process patterning, we appreciate the process style of others with whom we live, work and serve. Our individual differences reflect the multidimensional parameters of human possibility. Each of us has an individual path, an individual interpretation of reality, and individual character and an individual processing-in-the-world;
  • accept that personality integration is a never-ending process. Living is a dynamic flow of psycho-physical events. Self-knowledge is not achievement that happens at this or that time in our life. Self-knowledge is a continual process of self-discovering and self-realizing;
  • understand that a person is an interactive entity whose properties are a product of that interaction. A stimulus does not cause a process in an inert system; it modifies existing processes in an active system that is purposively directed towards the realization of certain goals and values;
  • view all experience, no matter how difficult or painful, as grist for further human evolution; and
  • experience themselves as life-forms capable of conscious choice and transcending change.


A ‘better person’ has to be one whose emotions are in some sense better. For emotions are our value feelings – our direct responses to the recognition of importance. And personal moral quality cannot be separated from the question of what is held to matter. This is surely involved, even if it is not all that is involved. | Margaret Donaldson

The basic conditions of helping are: confidence in, reliance on, some quality of person, or truth of statement; confident expectation, hope.

Covey talks of an Emotional Bank Account as a metaphor that describes the amount of trust that has built up in a relationship. This trust develops a feeling of ‘safeness’ with another person. The safeness comes, of course, from the consistency of the relationship.

But consistency is not enough. One can be consistently grouchy or hostile. Integrity also implies wholeness in terms of emotional stability. A person with integrity is someone whose emotions are in some sense ‘better’; one whose own personal boundaries are not impinged by the lack of boundaries in others; a person who remains whole regardless of the circumstances.

Covey describes this wholeness in terms of what it ‘gives to’ or ‘deposits’ with the relationship. He describes major ‘deposits’ to the Emotional Bank Account that are important for all ‘helpers’ to understand.

The first deposit is to understand the other person. This is predicated upon a person who is whole enough to tone down, if not turn off, his/her own inner speech and to listen to the inner speech of the other. While this is beneficial in all relationships, it is a requirement if one seeks to be a helper.

When you listen to someone, you should give up all your preconceived ideas and your subjective opinions; you should just listen to him, just observe what his way is. …put very little emphasis on right and wrong or good and bad. …just see things as they are with him, and accept them. Usually when you listen to some statement, you hear it as a kind of echo of yourself.

The Beginner’s Mind – Suzuki

Taking the stance of curious student avoids the need to defend and places the other person in the expert role. An internal stance within the inquirer manifests itself through the role of a “question asking student” who seeks meaning, understanding and difference.

• The most important capability for good interviewing is to maintain a stance of curiosity
• Being curious about how the question was answered
• Curiosity is the opposite of certainty
• Curiosity leads naturally to asking good questions and is ethically benign
• Certainty generally impairs hearing, learning, and understanding
• Assume the stance of a student seeking truth

Curiosity produces a different pattern of question asking – probing to learn more about what the other person believes and is interested in.

Another way to deposit is to attend to the little things. In relationships, the little things are the big things. The little kindnesses and courtesies are vital, and the little forms of disrespect are critical.

Keeping commitments or promises is a major part of integrity. There is probably no more massive break in trust than the failure to keep a promise, regardless of the circumstances. The next time a promise is made, they won’t believe it. People, particularly children, tend to build their hopes around promises. Keeping promises requires that we take promises seriously. Don’t make promises frivolously, even, or most importantly, small ones. Big promises may not have the full belief and, therefore, the disappointment is less profound, but small promises surely have a high investment of trust and a large withdrawal when left undone. Be where you are supposed to be. Do what you said you would do. And hold a tight counsel on what you promise.

Another deposit is sincere apology when you make a withdrawal. In the best of all intents, we will occasionally fail to keep a promise. Recognize your debt to the Emotional Bank Account. Apologize. Don’t make excuses, other than you made a mistake and promised something that you couldn’t keep and that you will try to be a better person in the future. It takes a great deal of character to apologize quickly from one’s heart instead of out of pity. A person must possess him/herself and have a deep sense of security in fundamental principles and values in order to genuinely apologize. People with little internal security can’t do it. It makes them too vulnerable. They may apologize about things that don’t matter. But this is a deceit. To be a deposit, an apology must be sincere. “If you’re going to bow, bow low’, says Eastern wisdom.

The next deposit is to clarify expectations. The cause of almost all relationship difficulties is rooted in conflicting or ambiguous expectations about roles and goals. If your client believes that your role is ‘friend’ and you see your role as ‘helper’, these have different expectations. The role of ‘friend’ might be expected to sometimes ignore the transgressions of a friend; the role of ‘helper’ cannot. Clarifying expectations sometimes takes a great deal of courage. It may seem easier to act as though differences don’t exist and to hope that things will work out.

Next is personal integrity. It has been said that you have to like yourself before you can like others. This idea has merit, but if you don’t know yourself, if you don’t control yourself, if you don’t have mastery over yourself it is very hard to provide any kind of effective support or help to others. It is not a matter of liking or even being liked. It is a matter of integrity.

Integrity and entire have the same source – the Latin integer. This meant ‘whole or complete’ and was formed from the prefix in meaning ‘in’ and tag, from a base meaning ‘touch’. Thus, integrity means being in touch and whole. While we often connect ethical behavior to integrity, it might also include a sense of internal coherence – the person with integrity is consistent in his/her responses and this consistency is rooted in the coherence of their image of themselves. Thus, a person who sees him/herself as a helper is consistent in the way they offer help.

Lack of integrity can undermine almost any other effort to create trust. People can seek to understand, remember the little things, keep their promises, clarify and fulfill expectations and still fail to build a reserve of trust. Integrity includes but goes beyond, honesty. Honesty is telling the truth – in other words conforming our words to reality. Integrity is conforming reality to our words – in other words, keeping promises and fulfilling expectations. One of the most important ways to manifest integrity is to be loyal to those who are not present. This is a most critical element of personal integrity for a Mentor. The Mentor will often be in environments that are hostile to the child. Easy discussion about the child’s problems in living will occur and you may not say anything to the other person you would not say to the child!

Your client, teachers or parents may not at first appreciate the honest confrontational experiences that integrity might generate. Confrontation takes considerable courage and many people would prefer the course of least resistance, belittling and criticizing, betraying confidences, or participating in gossip about others behind their backs.

Integrity also means avoiding any communication that is deceptive, full of guile, or beneath the dignity of people. A lie is a communication with intent to deceive. Whether we communicate with words or behavior, if we have integrity, our intent cannot be to deceive.

Finally, comes hope and rational optimism. When adults see a child’s problems as opportunities to build relationships instead of as negative, burdensome irritations, it totally changes the nature of the interaction. You become more willing, even excited about deeply understanding and helping children. If you believe that this child, with all of the problems in living that s/he displays, is capable of learning to master themselves and their environment; when you have and give hope that things will get better, and when your hope is realistic and supported with real skills – then you can help.

Empathic Communication

There cannot be right thinking and action without right speech.

Suppose you’ve been having trouble with your eyes and you decide to go to an optometrist for help. After briefly listening to your complaint, he takes off his glasses and hands them to you.

‘Put these on’, he says. ‘I’ve worn this pair of glasses for ten years now and they’ve really helped me. I have an extra pair at home; you can wear these.’

So you put them on, but it only makes the problem worse.

‘This is terrible!’ you exclaim. ‘I can’t see a thing!’

‘Well, what’s wrong?’ he asks. ‘They work great for me. Try harder.’

‘I am trying’, you insist. ‘Everything is a blur.’

‘Well, what’s the matter with you? Think positively.’

‘Okay. I positively can’t see a thing.’

‘Boy, are you ungrateful!’ he chides. ‘And after all I’ve done to help you!’

What are the chances that you would go back to that optometrist? What is the problem here?

The problem is that the optometrist was operating from his own experience without understand the experiences of the other person. He sought to offer expertise without first understanding clearly what was going on with the other person. This story goes to the absurd to make a point – our expertise is often our problem. We KNOW what is best.

The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities.

The Beginner’s Mind – Suzuki

The goal of every helper must be to first understand the person whom they serve. This requires a process of engaging that person in a kind of communication in which the person can and will share their innermost thoughts from which you can infer in a kind of retroengineering their inner logic. Once the helper understands the inner logic of the person they are serving, they are capable of helping that person either change the inner logic or find better behaviors to serving their goals.

The greatest barrier to understanding the inner logic of another person is our own inner logic. It is our inner logic that suggests that we ‘have the right way’. We have a tendency to rush in, to fix things up with good advice, without having taken the time to really understand on what basis the person seeking help is making his/her decisions.

Communication is the most important skill in life. But as we communicate we give information about the world as we ‘see’ it. But our reality is not the ‘real world’ it is merely our perception of it. Our experience of the world is experience of an interpretation.

“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”
Anais Nin

So the first responsibility of the helper is to place his or her own inner logic aside and seek to understand the unique inner logic of the client.

A father once told Stephen Covey:

“I can’t understand my kid. He just won’t listen to me at all.”

In response Covey restated what was just said.

“You don’t understand your son because he won’t listen to you?”

Tell me the problem here.

How do I understand a person without listening to them?

The overriding concern is to first seek to understand by listening to the other person without projecting your own home movie onto the other person. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own inner logic, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.

The real key to your influence with the client is your example, your actual conduct. Your example flows naturally out of who you truly are. Your character is constantly radiating, communicating. From it, I instinctively trust or distrust you and your efforts.

What you are shouts so loudly in my ears that I cannot hear what you say. Emerson

When another person speaks, we’re usually listening at one of four levels.

• We may be ignoring another person, not really listening at all.

• We may be pretending.

• We may practice selective listening, hearing only certain points of the conversation.

• Or we may even practice attentive listening, paying attention and focusing energy on the words that are being said.

But few of us practice empathic listening with the specific intent to understand. Empathic listening gets inside another person’s frame of reference. It involves much more than registering, reflecting or even understanding the words that are said.

Communications experts estimate that only 10% of our communication is represented by the words we say.

Another 30% is represented by our sounds.

And 60% by our body language [particularly facial expression].

You must listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you deal with the reality inside another person’s head and heart. You’re listening to understand. Empathic listening is also risky. It takes a great deal of security to go into a deep listening experience because you open yourself up to be influenced.

Because we listen autobiographically, we tend to respond in one of four ways:

• we evaluate – either we agree or disagree;

• we probe – we ask questions from our own frame of reference;

• we advise – we give counsel from our own frame of reference; or

• we interpret – we try to figure people out, to explain their motives, their behavior, based on our own motives and behavior.

When you evaluate everything before it is fully explained, what are you evaluating?

Probing is playing twenty questions – it controls and invades. It is also logical, and the language of logic is different from the language of sentiment and emotion.

Constant probing is one of the main reasons parents do not get close to their children. A typical parental probe session might look like this:

‘How’s it going, son?’
‘Well, what’s been happening lately?’
‘So what’s exciting in school?’
‘Not much.’
‘And what are your plans for the weekend?’
‘I don’t know?’

Home is a motel where he eats and sleeps, but never shares, never opens up. And if he did, parents often stomp all over this vulnerability with an autobiographical note – ‘When I was a boy………..”

Let’s examine a typical conversation between a father and his teenage son and look at the words in terms of the four different responses. The Instructor may want to show this on an overhead [eliminate the labeling] and give participants time to read it, or to read it out loud. You will be asking the participants to place the labels and to comment on the dialogue.

‘Boy, Dad, I’ve had it! School is for the birds!’

‘What’s the matter, Son? [probing].

‘It’s totally impractical. I don’t get a thing out of it.’

‘Well, you just can’t see the benefits yet, Son. I felt the same way when I was your age. I remember thinking what a waste some of the classes were. But those classes turned out to be the most helpful to me later on. Just hang in there. Give it some time’ [advising].

‘I’ve given it ten years of my life! Can you tell me what good x plus y is going to be to me as an auto mechanic?’

‘An auto mechanic? You’ve got to be kidding” [evaluating].

‘No, I’m not. Look at Joe. He’s quit school. He’s working on cars. And he’s making lots of money. Now that’s practical.’

‘It may look that way now. But several years down the road, Joe’s going to wish he’d stayed in school. You don’t want to be an auto mechanic. You need an education to prepare you for something better than that’ [advising].

‘I don’t know. Joe’s got a pretty good set up.’

‘Look son, have you really tried?’ [probing, evaluating].

‘I’ve been in high school two years now. Sure I’ve tried. It’s just a waste.”

‘That’s a highly respected school, Son. Give them a little credit’ [advising, evaluating].

‘Well, the other guys feel the same way I do.’

‘Do you realize how many sacrifices your mother and I have made to get you where you are? You can’t just quit when you’ve come this far’ [evaluating].

‘I know you’ve sacrificed. Dad. But it’s just not worth it.’

‘Look, maybe if you spent more time doing your home work and less time in front of the TV…[advising, evaluating].

‘Look, Dad. It’s just no good. Oh ….never mind! I don’t want to talk about this anyway.”

Does this sound reasonably typical?

Comment on the process – when the father responds, was he probing, advising, evaluating or interpreting?

Did the conversation accomplish anything?

How do you think the father felt after the conversation?

Obviously, the father was well intended. Obviously, he wanted to help.

But did the father ever understand?

What about the boy – how do you think he felt?

Do you think the boy ever communicated what it was about school that was the problem?

Does anyone want to speculate on the problem?

The Instructor should note that any observations are autobiographical and without merit. Nothing has been said to this point about what caused the boy to arrive at the conclusion that school was not helpful.

Looking carefully at the son – not just his words, but his thoughts and feelings [expressed parenthetically] and the possible effect of some of the father’s autobiographical responses.

Reread the boys first statement and ask what the boy’s thought might be?

‘Boy, Dad, I’ve had it! School is for the birds!’

I want to get your attention.

‘What’s the matter, Son?’

And what might the boy have thought when his father replied?

You’re interested! Good!

It’s totally impractical. I don’t get a thing out of it.’
Now that he has his father’s attention, what might he have been saying with this statement?

I’ve got a problem with school and I feel just terrible.

‘Well, you just can’t see the benefits yet, Son. I felt the same way when I was your age.

What might have been the boys thoughts and feelings to this statement? Did this statement address the boy’s problem with school?

Oh, no! Here comes Chapter three of Dad’s autobiography. This isn’t what I want to talk about. I don’t really care how many miles he had to trudge thought the snow to school without any boots. I want to get to my problem.

I remember thinking what a waste some of the classes were. But those classes turned out to be the most helpful to me later on. Just hang in there. Give it some time’.

Time won’t solve my problem. I wish I could tell you. I wish I could just spit it out.

‘I’ve given it ten years of my life! Can you tell me what good x plus y is going to be to me as an auto mechanic?’

‘An auto mechanic? You’ve got to be kidding.”

Now we know that the boy has a problem in school and he wants to be an auto mechanic – is that right? What might he be thinking and feeling now?

Note that the boy never said he wanted to be an auto mechanic.

He wouldn’t like me if I were an auto mechanic. He wouldn’t like me if I didn’t finish school. I have to justify what I said.

‘No, I’m not. Look at Joe. He’s quit school. He’s working on cars. And he’s making lots of money. Now that’s practical.’

‘It may look that way now. But several years down the road, Joe’s going to wish he’d stayed in school.

Want to speculate on what the boy might have been thinking about this response?

Oh, boy! Here comes lecture number sixteen on the value of education.

You don’t want to be an auto mechanic.

Did the boy say he wanted to be an auto mechanic?

How do you know that, Dad? Do you really have any idea of what I want?

You need an education to prepare you for something better than that.’

What message does this send. Does the father have any respect for auto mechanics? Are auto mechanics failures to the father?

‘I don’t know. Joe’s got a pretty good set up.’

He’s not a failure. He didn’t finish school and he’s not a failure.

‘Look son, Have you really tried?’.

This sounds like blaming the victim. If school is not working – it must be the student’s fault.

We’re beating around the bush, Dad. If you would just listen, I really need to talk to you about something important.

‘I’ve been in high school two years now. Sure I’ve tried. It’s just a waste.”

‘That’s a highly respected school, Son. Give them a little credit.’

Again, whatever the problem is – it can’t be the fault of the school – who is left?

Oh, great. Now we’re talking credibility. I wish I could talk about what I want to talk about.

‘Well, the other guys feel the same way I do.’

I have credibility, too. I’m not a moron.

‘Do you realize how many sacrifices your mother and I have made to get you where you are?

When in doubt, defend yourself – I did everything I could…

Uh-oh, here comes the guilt trip. Maybe I am a moron. The school’s great, Mom and Dad are great, and I’m a moron.

‘You can’t just quit when you’ve come this far.’

Rhetorical statement: how far does one need to go before you quit? How long do you keep repairing the used car, before you buy another one? How long do you try to retrain, before you fire? This is a difficult question that demands considerable thought. Yet in this case, we don’t yet know the problem.

‘I know you’ve sacrificed. Dad. But it’s just not worth it.’

You just don’t understand.

‘Look, maybe if you spent more time doing your home work and less time in front of the TV…’

More blaming.

That’s not the problem, Dad! That’s not it at all! I’ll never be able to tell you. I was dumb to try.

‘Look, Dad. It’s just no good. Oh ….never mind! I don’t want to talk about this anyway.”

Ask: From the son’s perspective, was the father helpful?

How might the conversation be restructured to reach a better sense of what is going on?

The following is Covey’s recommended script, with the old script struck out and the boys thoughts in italics.

Son: ‘Boy, Dad, I’ve had it! School is for the birds!’

‘What’s the matter, Son? [probing].

Father: ‘You’re really frustrated about school.’

‘That’s right! That’s how I feel.’

Frustration is the feeling; school is the content.

Son: ‘ I sure am. It’s totally impractical. I don’t get a thing out of it.’

‘Well, you just can’t see the benefits yet, Son. I felt the same way when I was your age. I remember thinking what a waste some of the classes were. But those classes turned out to be the most helpful to me later on. Just hang in there. Give it some time’ [advising].

Father: You feel like school’s not doing you any good”

Let me think – is that what I mean?

‘I’ve given it ten years of my life! Can you tell me what good x plus y is going to be to me as an auto mechanic?’

Son: Well, yeah. I’m not learning anything that’s going to help me.

‘An auto mechanic? You’ve got to be kidding” [evaluating].

‘No, I’m not. Look at Joe. He’s quit school. He’s working on cars. And he’s making lots of money. Now that’s practical.’

‘It may look that way now. But several years down the road, Joe’s going to wish he’d stayed in school. You don’t want to be an auto mechanic. You need an education to prepare you for something better than that’ [advising].

Father: ‘You think that Joe really has the right idea.’


‘I don’t know. Joe’s got a pretty good set up.’

Son: Well, I guess he does in a way. He’s really making money now. But in a few years, I bet he’ll probably be ticked off at himself.”

Notice that the son is now thinking and articulating his own thoughts and values, which really reflect those of his father.

‘Look son, Have you really tried?’ [probing, evaluating].

Father: ‘You think Joe’s going to feel he made the wrong decision.’

‘I’ve been in high school two years now. Sure I’ve tried. It’s just a waste.”

Son: ‘He’s got to. Just look at what he’s giving up. I mean, if you don’t have an education, you just can’t make it in this world.’

‘That’s a highly respect school, Son. Give them a little credit’ [advising, evaluating].

Father: ‘Education is really important’?

‘Well, the other guys feel the same way I do.’

Son: ‘Oh, yeah! I mean, if you don’t have a diploma, if you can’t get jobs or go to college, what are you going to do? You’ve just got to get an education.

Father: ‘Do you realize how many sacrifices your mother and I have made to get you where you are? You can’t just quit when you’ve come this far’ [evaluating].

‘It’s important to your future’.

Son: ‘I know you’ve sacrificed. Dad. But it’s just not worth it.’

‘It is. And…you know what? I’m really worried. Listen, you won’t tell Mom, will you?

Father: ‘Look, maybe if you spent more time doing your home work and less time in front of the TV…[advising, evaluating].

‘You don’t want your mother to find out.’

Son: ‘Look, Dad. It’s just no good. Oh ….never mind! I don’t want to talk about this anyway.”

‘Well, not really. Oh, I guess you can tell her. She’ll probably find out anyway. Look, I took this test today, this reading test. And Dad, they said I’m reading on a fourth grade level. Fourth grade! And I’m a junior in high school!’

What a difference real understanding can make. Now we understand the problem and Dad can help. Now father and son are on the same side of the table looking at the problem, instead of on opposite sides looking across at each other. The son is ready to open the father’s autobiography and asking for advice. Even as the father begins to counsel, however, he needs to be sensitive to the son’s communication. As long as the response is logical, the father can effectively ask questions and give counsel. But the moment the responses becomes emotional, he needs to go back to empathic listening.

Often when people are really given a chance to open up, they are able to unravel their own problems and the solutions become clear to them in the process. Too often, the expert is ready to provide a solution. Even if it is the right one, we have not helped the client learn how to address his/her own solutions. Only the client can determine whether s/he is even going to implement the solution, so their participation in finding it is critical.

At other times, a person might really need additional perspective and help. The more that this help is offered in the context of training the child to learn how to think through problems towards solutions, the more effective your modeling will be.

The key is to genuinely seek the welfare of the person, to let the person get to the problem and the solution at his own pace and time. Layer upon layer – it’s like peeling an onion until you get to the soft inner core. The client must trust that when you finally find out what the real issues are, you will not become punishing. Being amoral in regard to clients is not ignoring the morality of behavior – it is setting it aside at least until you understand fully the meaning of the immorality to the client.

If the client sees the behavior as immoral and seeks your sanction for it, you should be clear to indicate that the behavior is immoral, even though the client may not be. You may need to separate the client from the behavior if the child is too immature to fully absorb the meaning of the immorality. On the other hand, if the client is truly and deliberately acting in an evil way, you will need to assert that the behavior is inappropriate and that you cannot, and will not, allow it to continue without consequences. At this point, the client will need to determine whether your trust in him/her is worth changing behavior for.

However, often, the client will see the behavior just as immoral as you do, but not have the solution as to how to replace the behavior. Perhaps they feel pressure from peers, teachers or parents to act in these ways. Until you know how the client feels about the behaviors, you may be acting in a way that indicates that you don’t care about the person because s/he is immoral and you become a nonsource for help with the problem. You are only a source of help if you are truly there for the client, even when s/he is not.

Maturity is a balance between courage and consideration. Seeking to understand requires consideration; seeking to be understood requires courage. Your character, your relationship and then the logic of your presentation, who you are, what you mean to the client, and the clarity of your thinking; these are the dimensions of trust.


There are two components to helping. The first is to establish a trust relationship. While this is a necessary component to helping, it is not sufficient. The second component is skill – the ability to transfer useful knowledge to another person. People only change when they learn to think differently. The only way to learn to think differently is to go through a formal process of examining one’s thoughts and deciding to change them. Psychological fitness is having balanced and rational thoughts about one’s self, other people and future expectations. Much too often we develop beliefs which are not only not irrational, but lead to a great deal of distress. The ‘inner logic’ – beliefs about self, others and the future directly influences both our emotions and actions. If those emotions and actions seem to be self-defeating, the client may want to change them. But s/he is not likely to change his or her distorted and distressing thoughts until s/he is able to identify them in a formal and public way. Further, the helper is not likely to learn about these thoughts unless and until s/he can be trusted with them. The final element of the trust relationship is the openness of the helper in outlining exactly what s/he intends to do and to emphasize the client’s power in that relationship. For we cannot change anyone else’s thoughts, we can only supply the novel information that enables them to change them.

In the final analysis, the helping process is a consent system, not a control system. The history of coercive actions to ‘do thing for the person’s own good must end if we are to find a truly transformational and effective helping system.