Clergy, accountants, teachers, business managers, social workers, parents – that’s just the beginning of a long list of vocations whose job involves solving problems face to face. You would think that much of their training would be focussed on how to do this best. But various studies have suggested that this is often not the case. Their intellectual training has prepared them with all the professional knowledge they require but has rarely taught them the skills for actually helping their clients.
When I was first trained as a marriage counsellor the emphasis was on a psychoanalytic approach, but I was fortunate in encountering Gerry Egan’s Skilled Helper which enabled me, I believe, to become much more effective. I found that his methodology was universal, and I was able to incorporate it into my managerial work. Later, I was able to write my own book which focussed on it as a managerial skill.
The essence of the approach was that helper and client worked as a team, and, in doing so, they followed some simple stages necessary to achieve the desired result. I devised the mnemonic: LEGUP. This stood for listening, exploring, goal-setting, underpinning and pursuit. Your first reaction may be that this is naïve. How can the same stages suit a penitent with a moral problem in the confessional and your 10 year old son who won’t do his homework? Let’s see.
Listening means that the helper should hear the client – both the facts and the feelings. These must be reflected so that the client knows he or she has been understood. This is a difficult skill for those whose habitual reaction is to comment on what is being said. Instead, the helper’s brain should be whirring away taking in the full picture from the client’s viewpoint. Throughout the whole process listening must continue.
Exploration is a dialogue in which the helper draws attention to aspects of what has been said. For example there may appear to be patterns of behaviour which need to be explored. The helper, tentatively of course, will identify these and suggest their possible relevance. But if they are significant it is the client who must recognise this if anything is to change. There may well be contradictions or inconsistencies which the client must think through, and perhaps extend their understanding of the situation. There may be aspects of the account which have a stronger emotional effect than others. Again, these must be illuminated so that their contribution can be gauged.
There is no ideal timescale for these two stages. They may take five minutes or be spread out over five days. The objective is that by the end both helper and client have discovered what has been going on and what has to be changed to achieve improvement. So the third stage is Goal-setting. There is no place for vague objectives such as “I’ll try to do better at this or that.” They must be concrete, realistic, observable and worthwhile. I feel another mnemonic coming on: CROW. If there are several objectives it usually helps to start with easy ones to give confidence.
Support refers to any action needed to make the objectives possible. For instance the client may need training, or new information, and administrative changes may be required. But we know how good intentions fail, so this is where Pursuit comes in. Helper and client should arrange further occasions where the client will report on the success of objectives. Scheduling such reports is strongly motivating, but it also provides opportunities to modify objectives. Difficulties experienced can be ironed out, and new insights derived from new experiences can be considered.
You will have noticed from my account that I emphasise the importance of the client recognising what has to change and approving the objectives which will achieve success. The helper is primarily acting as coach, using the skills of problem solving to help the client to find the best way to succeed. Instructions are few: gentle questions which help clients to reach the undertakings and the decisions for themselves are many. This will still apply even when the dialogue is disciplinary. Imposed instructions are less effective than voluntary acceptance.
You may think that the five elements I have described are over the top in many minor cases – which might be dealt with in five minutes. You may test this by considering how likely it is that change will happen when the client does not feel understood, or has not thought about the causes of the problem, or has nothing more than hopeful resolutions, or is without the facilities to put the change into action, or is without an opportunity to report back for approval and further help. Even in the simplest problems — when some stages of LEGUP take only seconds – the same process applies. Once that is second nature a helper will wonder how success could have been achieved without it.