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Do you have trouble finding an adequate balance between helping others and meeting your personal responsibilities or duties? Ever felt overwhelmed when helping, or getting help? If so, you may find the information on this page helpful.



According to Peer Helping (1990), effective communication and effective helping behaviour involve four distinct skills:

1. Reflective Listening
2. Exploring Alternatives
3. I-Messages
4. Handling Conflict

Each skill is valuable. Each also works best, in a particular context. Which is best for what context? In answering this question, we must first determine who truly owns the problem (or, who owns the opportunity for growth).



Who Owns the Problem/Opportunity for Growth?

Identifying who owns the problem tells us who has responsibility for solving or handling the problem. According to Peer Helping (1990), it is important "to determine who owns the problem because owning the problem means accepting responsibility for handling the problem." Sometimes when we are asked for help, we may assume that we own the problem. This is not always true. Solving a problem that in truth belongs to another, can have a few important repercussions both upon the person we are trying to help, and upon ourselves. Doing so may reduce a person's self-esteem by making him or her dependent on you, and further, doing so may stall, hinder, or delay the other person's personal development, in terms of him or her learning how to take responsibility for his or her actions (Peer Helping, 1990).

Peer Helping (1990) further suggests asking a few questions to help uncover who owns the problem. Some of these include:

- Who is upset?

- Who is being blocked from reaching a goal?

- Who is bringing up the issue?

Knowing who owns the problem (or opportunity for growth) — and therefore who must live with all its potential outcomes — helps us  decide how we might most effectively help another. It can help us decide which communication skills are most appropriate for us to use.

In general, if the person with whom you are talking owns the problem, begin with reflective listening and then move to exploring alternatives (Peer Helping, 1990). If you own the problem, begin with I-messages and then move to handling conflict (Peer Helping, 1990).


Examples:
1. The following is a case where Belinda owns the problem/opportunity for growth.

Belinda: "I can't believe this! Mark insulted me! I just mentioned that I wasn't feeling well, and he asked to see documentation. I mean, can you believe this? I haven't had a day's rest this whole week. Where am I going to find the time to call the doctor so that the office can have a record of my absences? Can you believe that he asked for documentation so that the office could have a record of my absences?! I can't believe Mark! What an insult! I work so hard at this place!"

Helper (less helpful): "Well! That's terrible! Why don't you get someone to talk to Mark, to straighten it out?"


The helper's response in this situation:
- cuts off communication
- might carry the assumption that Belinda can't figure out what to do
- takes responsibility away from Belinda to solve the problem

Now take a look at the following response:
Helper (potentially more helpful): "It sounds like you're pretty upset with Mark, because you think he is treating you unfairly."

The statement described as potentially more helpful is a reflective listening statement (Peer Helping, 1990). In this case, the helper is using reflective statements to help Belinda explore her situation. After both Belinda and the helper understand Belinda's situation better, the helper might then begin helping Belinda explore alternatives or actions that Belinda might take. This entire process would officially end when Belinda has decided on a plan of action i.e., a tentative way to handle her opportunity for growth. Before moving to explore alternatives, the helper would help Belinda clarify her statements and therefore help her think through her problem while actively listening to her. The helper would also essentially check or gauge understanding of the problem by relaying, repeating, or "feeding back" what Belinda has said to him or her, thereby helping clarify the situation for both of them. Interestingly, throughout this process, we can sometimes discover that the person needing help simply requires someone to "vent" to, an "attentive ear," someone to talk to, or, someone to share with. Blind sympathy (notes: the helper has not shown empathy above; also, to learn about the difference between sympathy and empathy you might try this site) — moving to provide alternatives, or attempting to solve Belinda's problem for her, might only escalate Belinda's problem, or create a problem when in fact active listening could reveal a potential miscommunication or misinterpretation of the situation.


2. In this example, the helper owns the problem/opportunity for growth.

Scenario: The helper has been coaching Joe for several weeks without much success. Joe is not motivated, is not paying attention, and does not bring any of the required materials.

Helper (less helpful): "You make me furious! You never bring your materials, you don't bring the assignments, you are almost always late, and you're always looking around during your lessons. I'm sick and tired of it! It's no wonder that you can't seem to make progress!"

The helper's words:
- use blame and ridicule
- attack the person
- lead to defensiveness and angry responses
- do not acknowledge that the helper owns part of the problem

Helper (potentially more helpful): "Joe, when you don't bring your materials, don't do the assignments, don't pay attention, and are late, I feel frustrated because it makes me think that you don't care about being coached."

This response:
- does not blame or ridicule
- describes the specific behaviour that is upsetting
- states how the helper feels


Summary

When you are being blocked from reaching a goal, you are essentially being presented with an opportunity for growth. Here, I-messages and conflict management skills are generally appropriate. When another person and not you is being blocked from reaching a goal, it is the other person who is being presented with an opportunity for growth. Reflective listening and exploring alternatives are the two skills that you might use to best help in this case (Peer Helping, 1990).

In some situations, you might also think about enlisting the aid of professional services. For example, in cases of sexual assault, death, or other traumas, certified professionals who make it their life's work to deal with these more serious situations should in fact be better able to manage the complexity that may arise from these issues. They have had the training in order to be able to do so, will also have a wider variety of resources on hand, and are (or should be) accountable to a regulatory board, in addition. 

...But, what if you find yourself the owner of a particular opportunity for growth, try the exercises listed here, explore the subject matter in greater depth using other resources, and find no resolution? You might, for example, find yourself using I-messages to a flurry of defensive, abusive, surprising behaviour, or aggressive tactics. In such cases, consider a deeper search re: "boundaries" to examine more material, and, do consider talking the situation over with a friendly counsellor in order to better unravel the intricacies of your situation. You might also consider attending a Kriyayoga Meditation session or 3, as taught by Guruji Swami Shree Yogi Satyam. Finally, you might also find yourself thinking about accepting difference in others, valuing difference in yourself, and re-evaluating your desire and ability to maintain certain relationships, or relationship patterns. You might reconsider, redefine or restructure your relationships in ways that better nurture both yourself and others.

When we undertake situation-appropriate communication, identify who owns the opportunity for growth, and know our present limitations (i.e. resources, time, etc.), we are more likely to facilitate a sense of well-being within ourselves and others as we help. By bettering our helping behaviour, we can also help encourage self-sufficiency and esteem in others.

 
Eppi Sukhu, MHSc.


Reference:

Peer Helping. 1990. J. Weston Walch (publisher). Pp. 34-35.


Additional Resources:

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