Have you ever noticed that although some people will ask you for help, they haven’t yet decided to change?
If you recognize this, you may also know from experience how frustrating it is to invest time and energy into helping someone through a tight spot, only to discover that they aren’t willing to take the necessary steps that will solve their initial problem.
It can be far more rewarding to focus only on those people who are ready and willing to change. A common problem we can face as new helping professionals is knowing who the ‘right’ people are in whom to invest our time, energy and efforts.
The one most important thing to establish when helping someone to solve their problems, is first, allowing ourselves to let our client, take full ownership of their problem. It is essential that the holders of these problems wholly own all issues.
When people come to me for counseling, I guide them through a simple process that initially establishes them as the owner of a problem, before then stepping into it, to help them find a solution for it.
Step 1: Empathy “Builds Rapport and Trust”
People will feel ‘open’ to your input once they recognize that you genuinely care about them, feel their pain with them, and are 100% for them. No one in their right mind will open up to someone else whom they fear may judge them, reject them, belittle their problem, or try to advise or control them. Acknowledging a person’s emotions lets them know that you are listening to them and also that you care. Be genuine in your approach to empathically relating, because merely putting on an act and just going through the motions of empathy will always be painfully evident and transparent to your client. It’s only when we stand alongside those we counsel and go the extra mile for them that we establish a personal connection and environment of trust in which they will feel safe enough to open up to our influence.
Step 2: Empowerment “empowerment comes via responsibility”
After you and your client have identified the problematic area and their feelings about it, you get to introduce one of the most critical questions you can ask as a helping practitioner:
“What are you going to do about your problem?”
This question is designed to engage their creative thinking and also give them a chance to develop a fresh perspective. Such question helps our clients to move away from a victim mindset about their issue, and towards recognition that they have the power to start creating change.
Step 3: Exploration “What steps have you already taken?”
In life, many people have a sad story that they enjoy telling (to anyone who will listen) while arguing that they have tried ‘everything’ to bring resolution to the problems they face. Commonly, this is a trait of people who are more prone to blame others for their issues than take responsibility for the part they play in creating their problems.
When someone is genuinely ready to change, they will be 100% fully committed to trying anything that could potentially resolve their crisis. Asking the question, “What have you tried so far?” suggests a narrative framework in which our client will see themselves on a journey of discovery. They can move towards finding the most appropriate solution that’ll help them to move forward, instead of going around in circles for a few more laps of the track.
If a client is not yet willing to try new things, they aren’t ready to change, and they are most likely looking for you to make all of the necessary changes for them.
Step 4: Education (I have a few suggestions if you’re interested)
At this stage of a conversation, there is very high probability they will be interested in hearing any ideas, insights or suggestions that you are willing to share. Likewise, at this point in the client based relationship, you should have enough useful information to formulate a range of viable suggestions for them. By now, you should also be able to recognize the degree to which your client is searching for a solution.
Just to be sure, it’s always helpful to ask, “Can I make suggestion or give you a few ideas?” It is also useful to frame your thoughts as questions which your clients can take ownership of without feeling like you’ve gone ahead and done all thinking for them. The most critical element of your role as a helping professional is to keep ‘putting the ball back in your client’s court’ by asking compelling questions that will engage and challenge them.
Step 5: Empowerment (What are you going to do next?)
After you’ve evaluated what your client has done in the past and offered appropriate suggestions for what steps they might take towards moving forward, bring them back to the question that will empower them once again: “What steps are you going to take next?”
If your client ‘owns’their initial problem and has enough helpful information on which to build a plan for addressing it, their next move is taking action. Responding to “What steps are you going to take next?” should help them clarify their strategy and take full ownership of executing it.
The last word of encouragement that I’d like to offer here is that you cannot work harder on another person’s problem, than the amount they are willing to work on it themselves. The problems that your clients bring to you are their problems, and never yours. As long as a person is prepared to own their issues, it’s only then that as helping professionals we can assist them in finding their solutions.
Empowerment comes via responsibility, and a person’s maturity in life can be recognized through their willingness to accept full responsibility for their problems. We can’t help other people grow by taking their problems away. Overcoming problems are the means by which we develop as people. As helping professionals, our role is to support, encourage and champion clients, as they follow through with the execution of their plan.
Questions for self-reflection:
- How comfortable would you be with empowering your client’s to take ownership of their problem(s)?
- How might you communicate this inside of a professional helping relationship?
- What benefits can you see in taking less responsibility for your client’s problems?