On the power of good help

Help. We all need it at different times in our lives, and most of us are hardwired to want to give it to others. But what is the difference between ‘good help’ and ‘bad help’? And how can we get better at helping people in a way that transforms their ability to help themselves?

Some of my fantastic colleagues at Nesta have just published a new report on this subject. It draws on both theory and practical research to identify a set of characteristics that are shared by good help initiatives, and explore the enabling factors that can increase the ability of service providers to offer good help. 

Many of their conclusions will sound like common sense. Really good help will engage with people’s strengths and hopes for their future, rather than only focusing on their problems, or indeed, treating them as a problem to be fixed. It will enable people to get really clear on the changes they want to make and give them the confidence to act, rather than leaving them confused about their options and dependent on ongoing support from others.

Obvious, right? Yet what surprised me during the thoughtful discussion at the report launch was the fact that it remains so difficult to translate these insights into the way that most organisations work.

I’m writing this sitting in the House of St Barnabas, a members’ club in the heart of Soho that is also a social enterprise. The profits generated by the club are all funnelled to the Employment Academy on the top floor, which works with people who have experienced homelessness to find sustainable employment. When I attended one of the graduation ceremonies last year, I was humbled and hugely inspired by the stories of people who are taking steps to overcome serious personal and systemic challenges and build a life that they want to live. One of my fellow mentors, Andrew, has written an excellent piece about this here, if you want to know more.

St Barnabas, and many of the other organisations profiled in the report – such as Grapevine, the Mayday Trust and User Voice – embody the good help ethos and approach. But this seems to be easier to apply in the social or voluntary sectors, where support can be much more tailored to individuals. How can it also be done at scale, in institutions or services where lack of time, resources and (sometimes) empathy means that the provision of help too often ends up being transactional rather than relational?

It’s given me food for thought, and I’ll be widening my current research on innovative organisational approaches to include more on this topic. Any suggestions for good things to read or great people to talk to would be very welcome.

More personally, the report’s conclusions have also made me think about my own coaching, and what the word ‘help’ means to me. I’m always reluctant to use it when I am describing the way I work with clients. I don’t like the implications of it – that I am somehow better, or in a position to ‘fix’ somebody else’s problems. That certainly isn’t the case! So I love the definition that Nesta have come up with:

‘Good help’ increases people’s confidence, sense of purpose and hope. It involves listening carefully to what matters to people, what’s going on in their lives, their skills and motivations, and it strengthens their sense of what is possible. ‘Good help’ enables people to take actionable steps that lead to long-term improvements in their lives.

I sometimes find it tempting to jump in during a session and offer a suggestion when a client gets stuck on an issue. Whenever I feel this urge though, I remember that my very favourite thing about coaching is the moment when someone pauses, you see their face light up, and they have a realisation about themselves or identify an action they can take that will transform their life. After all, it will only be a sustainable change if it comes from within. Being able to create and hold the space for others to find their own solutions is a huge privilege, and the best way I’ve found so far to offer genuinely good help.