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How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help

By Edgar H. Schein
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Helping by Edgar H. Schein

Helping (2009) explores a common phenomenon; when we offer help to other people, we’re often met with resistance, ungratefulness and even resentment. Drawing from a variety of real-life scenarios, author Edgar Schein describes the social and psychological dynamics that underlie this most fundamental human activity and, perhaps more importantly, how we can ensure that our help is both welcome and genuinely useful. 

Key idea 1 of 9

Helping is intrinsic to human society, and we don’t always recognize it.

Imagine a soccer team in full flow, from its strikers to its central defenders. To win the match, everything depends on each team member successfully helping the other players. If help isn’t quickly provided, then the striker gets tackled before he can shoot, the attacking midfielder has nobody to pass to and the goalkeeper is left vulnerable. 

Just like in a game of soccer, helping is intrinsic to many aspects of our lives. In fact, it’s so ingrained in our every-day lives that we tend to forget just how important it is. Just think of your workplace. If you couldn’t rely on getting help from your colleagues when you need it, or they from you, you probably wouldn’t be able to accomplish much. 

So how do we help each other?

Let’s look at supervisors and subordinates in a work environment. To achieve an objective at work – to finish a project or improve sales, for instance – the boss and her subordinates are dependent on each other’s help. They enter into a kind of psychological contract. This is most clearly noticeable when one side fails to provide enough help and tensions flare. We’ve all been hollered at when we haven’t pulled our weight, and the group deadline is approaching. 

The very glue of our society is based on helping each other. Just think of all the different situations in which people provide help. It might be the stranger offering directions to backpackers stumbling blindly around a foreign city, the good friend supplying a word that’s on the tip of your tongue or the suicide hotline operator advising someone in serious distress.

Our lives are defined by these vital reciprocal relationships, without which there is no family, no work, no games and no society or civilization to speak of.

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