The Skilled Helper By Gerard Egan English Literature Essay

The entire book is about the culture of helping, intertwining the beliefs, values and norms that should drive the helping process. Egan indicates that an understanding of the diversity of human nature and being aware of personal cultural values and biases is integral for helpers to overcome some of the blind spots they may encounter when helping a client. The book is divided into six parts with each part targeting a specific area of the helping model.

I will be looking at the first five chapters in the book which encompasses part one and part two. Part one has chapters one to three, and deal specifically with the nature and goals of helping, it provides an overview of the helping process and then the relationship nature of the helping model. Part two concentrates on the communication skills needed to be an effective helper. Egan cites Roberts (1998) who stated that dialogue is essential because helping is a collaborative endeavour (p.64)

Historically, given the appropriate condition, people have been able to help other people come to grips with the day to day problem of living using a variety of helping professions. Although teachers teach english, math’s, social sciences, physical education, etc. which are geared at developing the academic, physical , social and emotional aspect of students, they are in strategic positions to guide students with the day to day problem of growing up. Helping is considered a common human experience; therefore if you are able to solve your own problem then it should be human nature to be able to help someone solve theirs. Unfortunately this is not the case as the average person on the street may not be able to help effectively.

According to Egan, the reason people seek counselling is mainly because they are not able to find the solution to their problems on their own, they are not handling a situation well, they feel unfulfilled or a combination of all of the above. The emotional turmoil created tends to lead to a lack of objectivity and no definitive solution can be seen. The goal of helping is not to solve the clients’ problems but to help them to manage the problem and find new opportunities in life. The objective is for the client to be able to find effective solutions with includes refocusing on missed opportunities and unused potential and apply the solutions to other aspect within their lives which may mirror the current problems. They would start to focus on not what is going wrong but what could be better, using our full potential. Seligman and Csikzentmihalyi (2000) stated that treatment is not just fixing what is broken but nurturing what is best. An interactive approach with discussion of well being, happiness, hope, and appreciation of art and beauty, spirituality, wisdom, etc. allows the helper to improve their service. However, it should be noted that identification and developing of missed opportunities also referred to as ‘positive psychology’ is not an ‘everything is going to be alright’ process.

In the book, there are two principal goals of helping identified and these are based on the needs of the client;

Helping the client to effectively manage their problems and more fully develop unused resources and missed opportunities – it is important to note that the client has a part to play in the helping process. They have to commit themselves to the program and use what they have learnt to manage their day to day lives.

Helping the client to become better at helping themselves – when the going gets tough the tough get going. As the crisis get harder to solve and ability to solve the problem disappears. Miller et al (1960) stated that an ordinary person almost never approaches a problem systematically and exhaustively unless he or she has been specifically educated to do so. Problem solving skill need to be a part of the school curriculums as these essential skills are necessary to ensure that children are able to identify problems, make sensible decision and identify opportunities

But the question is asked, “How do we know that helping helps?” Enysenk (1952) questioned the validity of the helping profession. How do we know it is not a fraudulent process designed to manipulate and rob clients? Or is it the intent of the profession to devalue people and impose personal values on the client? Is it a kind of brain washing which has no positive effect? These are some of the concerns raised about the profession, however the profession got a positive boost when the surgeon general of the US issued a report on mental health (Satcher 2000). Four areas were identified as being relevant to the recognition;

Mental health is important to physical or overall health

Mental disorder are real health issues

Mental disorder treatment are well documented

A range of treatment exists for mental disorders.

In addition, clients claimed that they benefitted substantially from treatment but recognised that the therapy alone did not differ in effectiveness from the therapy plus medication. Egan noted that it also did not matter the kind of helper, or the form of helping, but the length of therapy that made a difference and the client may feel better because they like their counsellor or because they are less stressed, however this is not an indication that they are managing their problems better or are developing their unused potential. The kind of therapy to be used depends on the efficacy studies carried out which will determine the method of helping.

When a treatment has been proven to be effective then a manual is usually created on how to deliver the treatment. Egan identified that there has been a lot of controversy over the maualised treatment which include the following;

The language was too strong

The recommendation were premature

It tends to idealise and distort psychotherapy

The research base was not up to standard. It was messy and uncategorized.

Egan emphasied that when trying to determine a client’s problem it has to be understood that the client has problem situations and not necessarily a specific problem. It is also recognised that there are good helper, bad helpers and helper that can have a negative impact (Mohr 1995). To be more specific, some helper are incompetent and clients become client because they want help, therefore it is necessary to become competent and uncompromising whilst remaining self-critical and keeping an eye on the objective. Helping will work but it is not necessarily for everyone. Helpers must be able to recognise the difficult cases versus the impossible cases and deal effectively with them.

Another question raised is “Can we assume that helping is for everyone?” Whilst some person will readily go to a helper there are those who don’t go because they are not able to access the helper, they are not ready for the change or they have an aversion toward the helping profession. The skilled Helper need to know when to help and how to help, therefore the helping session should remain focused and to the point as the client will not be the client on a permanent basis. It is important for the helper to put the working knowledge and the skills together to be an effective helper. A strong knowledge base of developmental, cognitive, abnormal psychology in addition to the dynamics of the helping profession and the ability to apply the principal in human behaviour are critical skills and knowledge required by the helping professional.

Egan further recognises that there are up sides and down side of helping and helping professionals need to understand the limitation and the things which can affect the helping process. All the things that can adversely affect the process are defined as the shadow side of helping and these can be broken down into two groups;

The downside, which highlight that some helpers are not competent and may have a tendency to get into trouble because of the misuse of their trade. The client may be disadvantaged because the helper focuses on the wrong issues. Managing the shadow side requires a great deal of integrity, social intelligence and competence

Whereas the upside, focuses on the positive psychology of helping. This includes using wisdom, sagacity, street smarts, and common sense in helping. Helpers need to be wise and in turn impart some of their wisdom to the clients. Baltes and Staudinger (2000) define wisdom as ‘an expertise in the conduct and meaning of life’ or ‘an expert knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life’ (p124,122), and some of the basic characteristic of wisdom include, self-knowledge, understand cultural conditioning, having the guts to admit mistakes, tolerance, avoiding stereotypes, the ability to take a long view of a problem and spiritual understanding. Although this list is not exhaustive it is important to understand that wisdom is about the excellence in living and being prepared to focus on how to help rather than what to help.

The skilled Helper quotes that Yankelivich (1992) seven step problem solving process of initial awareness, urgency, initial search for remedies, estimation of cost, deliberation, rational decision and rational-emotional decision may be logical in theory however they were often jumbled and intermingled with everyday real life problem management situations which could be derailed at any point during the process due to financial constraints. In addition the decision making ability during difficult situations was not as rational as the process intended as the process lacked the method for turning decisions into solution focused actions.

Another question arising out of the book is, “where should problem solving techniques start?” Some argue that it should start in the home whilst others argue that it should start in the school, but according to The Skilled Helper the belief is that life skill are learned through experience and should be second nature and therefore there is no need for any formal education in schools. It is important to note that life skills and problem solving abilities should not be left to chance. The process offered by The Skilled Helper is flexible, humanistic, broadly based problem solving management and an opportunity development model. The four fundamental questions asked within the model are; what’s going on? What do I need or want? What do I have to do to get what I need or want? and how do I get results? These questions provide the framework for the helping process.

Egan uses a client named Carlos to illustrate the helping model. Carlos is a man in his mid twenties. He never thought he had any problems until he is told by a co-worker that he was his own worst enemy. Carlos was disturbed by this statement and sought help from the company’s counsellor. Carlos did have a block the fact that the counsellor was a woman, Elena. The first step for Elena in the helping process is to get Carlos to talk and open up, then help him break through his blind spot which was the fact that he did not realise how self-centered he was and then help him to choose the issue to work on that would make a difference in his life. Carlos identified that he needed to become a better communicator and this led to the next stage of the helping process. He was now ready to brainstorm with Elena to find possible solutions keeping in mind that these solutions had to be realistic and challenging and geared at fixing the key issue. Carlos had to remain committed to the process or else he would fail therefore identifying an incentive that would be the driving force behind him staying committed was necessary. He had to keep his eye on his ultimate goal, which was to become a better communicator.

The final process in his therapy involved him seeking different ways to achieve his objective and chose the one that fits best utilizing his talent, resources, style, temperament, environment and timetable. This enabled him to organize the actions needed to achieve the goals and now he was ready to implement. Implementation however is never a smooth process and we see where Carlos had many hurdles to overcome. The changes he had to implement were not easy and he eventually he had to reset his program.

This example of Carlos shows in a practical way how the helping model described in The Skilled Helper should work, however it is very important to recognise that there must be some amount of flexibility on the part of the client and the helper to achieve the desired results. There should be constant reviewing and early detection of what is going wrong. Some clients are not aware of what they want until they start talking and since the client can enter a program at any point, the helper should be ready to jump in and guide the client from that point on. The helper invariable will find themselves moving back and forth over the helping model.

Then we ask ourselves, “How long should therapy take?” Some argue that time sensitive psychotherapy is more effective, but how do we ensure that the therapy is effective and efficient when a timeline is place on it. Egan (2002) stated that helping can be ‘lean and mean’ and still be human and that although sometimes only partial results are achieved (p.36), the helping model works best when the whole is found in each of its parts. Just in the same way that clients have to find the best fit program, helpers also need to find the best fit helping model to effectively counsel clients. Whether the helper decides to ‘borrow or stitch’ helping models together or just deal with problem management as the underlying process or use The Skilled Helper to find useful processes, it is important to remember that the client deserves the best practice no matter the source. Fads, using no model, applying rigid application of helping models and virtuosity are in no way beneficial to the client. These incompetent methods will do more harm than good and will undermine the objective of the helping process which is about solutions, results, outcomes, and impact.

In chapter three, Egan looks at the relationship between the helper and the client and there are arguments that arise on whether it is the relationship, the work or the outcomes which play in integral role in the relationship. Rogers (1951,1957) client centered approach give credence to the relationship being the most important but Arknoff (1995) believes that the relationship is only a means to an end therefore if too much emphasis in placed on the relationship then there is a possibility that both parties may get distracted from their goal. The relationship as a working alliance (Greenson, 1967) is intended to bring all three aspects together by incorporating collaboration, relearning and flexibility. Helpers need to be aware of what the relationship means to each client. He also makes a comparison on how aspects of culture affect clients. He states that’ shared assumptions and beliefs and interactions with shared values produce shared norms that drive shared patterns of behaviour’ (p.45)

Looking at the traditions of culture and incorporating them into the helping model you will still be able to see a distinction of a value system which further establishes a set of norms. Within the helping profession there are four major values which drive the program, these are; respect, empathy, genuineness and client empowerment. All of these values are fundamentally driven by the concept that the helping profession is built on is respect. The helper must be sure that they are there for the right reasons and not have intentions to do any harm to the client. The helper must be just as committed to the program as the client, always looking out for the clients’ good will and not rush judgments or decision which would not benefit the client. It is important to always keep the client’s agenda in focus.

Drawing from several theorists’ arguments Egan attempts to clarify and simplify the nature of empathy;

Barret-Lennard (1981) – identified three phases; empathetic resonance, expressed empathy and received empathy.

Carl Rogers (1975) – being able to sense a clients inner world

Kohut (1978) – it is a psychological nutrient. The body would not survive without it

Covey (1989) – it is psychological air. We need it to breathe.

Goleman (1995,1998) – it is the heart of emotional intelligence and there is nothing passive about it.

To effectively empathise with the client, the helper needs to be able to understand what makes the client who they are using all of the above theories as a base. This requires an understanding of the client’s cultural background and how situations affect them. For instance, life threatening illness may not have the same impact on a sixty year old versus a twenty year old, therefore the helper has to adapt to the diversity of the situations.

Although Egan stresses that respect and empathy are critical in the helping process, he further expands on the need for genuineness and client empowerment in the whole helping process. Helpers should be spontaneous and open, at the same time not overemphasising their role, and definitely avoid being defensive. Additionally empowering the client makes it appear that they have control over the program, therefore the helper works on the premise that the client can change if they want to, they are not to be seen as victims, and the steps in the helping process should be shared with the client.

In part two of the book, Egan looks at the whole communication process and the necessary skills required to be an effective helper. He acknowledges that the conversation between the helper and the client must be therapeutic and he highlights four requirements for true dialogue. These are, taking turns in conversing, that is the conversation is interactive; connecting, the conversation between the helper and client connects in some way; mutual influencing , which is conversation that is open enough to influence the other party; and cocreating outcomes, which means the helper is not telling the client what to do or what not to do. The helper is there to assist the client to find his solutions. Egan stresses that communication skills must become second nature if the intention is to effectively serve the helping process and the client’s needs.

But how does the client know the helper is interested in what they have to say? This can only be conveyed to the client by actively taking part in the dialogue. Egan notes that helpers have to ‘tune in’ to their client and this includes carefully monitoring non-verbal communication, namely body language. By taking careful note of bodily behaviour, eye behaviour, facial expression, tone of voice, space and general appearance non-verbal communication can influence the client in good ways and also in bad ways, therefore it is important to be sensitive to a client’s reaction to body language. Egan’s The Skilled Helper illustrates the use of ‘SOLER’, an acronym for Squarely, Open, Lean, Eye, and Relaxed, which is a guideline for effectively tuning in to the client. He states that by remembering and using this technique the helper will be able to identify when they have started to tune out the client. Egan further points out that effective communication is a skill that has to be honed and nurtured as not everyone will have the communication skill to help in the helping profession.

After reading the first five chapters in this book, I can state that the best chapter for me is in fact chapter five. In this chapter, Egan clarifies what it means to effectively listen to a client. A poignant point he makes on page 88 is that “To be an effective helper, you need to listen not only to the client but also to yourself”. Listening to ourselves is not a natural human characteristic, but the helping profession requires this and by using case examples to illustrate the use of the skill, Egan breaks down the adequacies and inadequacies of listening. He pretty much stated that to effectively listen, you must be prepared to put in the work required. Going through the motions, listening only partially, repeating only what he client says and having rehearsed statements will do more harm than good as the client’s needs to feel that the helper has tuned in to them. The same goes for listening empathetically, it is not a skill to be taken lightly as it too requires a great deal of being with, observing, listening and understand the client’s world. The case used of Jennie, a rape victim and her counsellor Denise, is a very harsh reality that rape victims face. Denise has the task of breaking through the barriers that Jennie has put up in defense of her problems and trying to get Jennie to see herself less of a victim and ultimately redirecting her energy to a more positive focus.

Egan stresses that by listening to the client’s experiences, understanding their behaviour in situation and how the experiences affect their emotions – which can be expressed in non-verbal ways – are key factors in the helping process as this will make the situation clearer to the helper. In the same way the client’s point of view should also be taken into consideration and not be discounted as frivolous. The helper may not be in total agreement with the absolute statements made by the client but the helper should be able to read in between the lines of the absolutes, with the intention of guiding the client to tap into their unused potentials. Even when the client has 101 intention, whether good or bad, the helper has to listen and process effectively and doing this requires picking out the main points, identifying what experiences are most important, what is important to the client, what decisions are being implied, and what they are proposing to do.

To achieve effective listening skills, Egan points out that helpers should also listen to themselves and be aware of the inhibitors of effective listening. The natural human reaction when listening to people is that we form opinions, biased and unbiased, or we become judgemental or we stereotype the individual based on the situation, or we ask too many questions without focusing on the key factors as to why the person is talking to us, or we identity too much with the situation and become too sympathetic. When counsellors fall prey to these inhibitors they run the risk of not effectively helping the client to manage their problems, and the ultimate objective to become self sufficient is delayed.

In conclusion, these five chapters of The Skilled Helper give more that a general overview of a helping model. Egan set out to define the key factors in the helping process. He adequately covers the role of counsellor and by using case examples to make the application of the theory more real. Both Carlos and Jennie have problems which affect not only them but others around or associated with them. The way in which Egan incorporates the helping model into their therapy show that the model in not an absolute problem fixer but the model can be tweaked and spun in a way that the client will achieve their objective.

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