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Solution-Focused Management: Types of Helping Relationships

When interacting with a client, co-worker, supervisee, or friend, it is useful to make a few distinctions to be most effective when a problem or problems are described and you perceive some expectation of help. Most of us have had the experience of having the best intentions and trying to assist someone, but feel burned, frustrated and taken advantage of in a helping interaction, and are confused by the negative outcome. If you keep the concepts below in mind, you can avoid this outcome and instead can have satisfying and positive results, even with individuals who may be labeled as “difficult” or even “impossible.”

First, it is useful to make the distinction between gripes and complaints:

Gripes are problems people have that they have no expectation of change about. Even so, they might offer detailed descriptions of the problem and how frustrating or difficult it is. You may even have some good ideas about how to solve the problem. However, if you jump in and try to help, you will fail. These people don’t want help, they just want to vent. They might even be confused if you offer to do anything or if you tell them to do something.

Complaints, on the other hand, are problems that people have an expectation of change about. This does not necessarily mean that they see themselves as the ones making the change, but at least they want something to be different and think that change or improvement can happen.

What to do: When someone comes to you with a problem, it is important to find out if they have an expectation of change before you offer advice or help. Questions like: “What do you want to do about this?”, “Do you think anything can be done about this?” or “Can I help with this?” can clarify if you are dealing with a gripe or a complaint. If the answer indicates you are dealing with a gripe, DO NOT offer advice or help, listen and perhaps offer an understanding of how hard the problem may be for them.

Helping relationships can be thought to fall into the three types. Keep in mind that this description of helping relationships is not a static state but is organic, fluid, and constantly changing. It is viewed from an interactional point of view, therefore, the helper can influence the type of relationship that develops.

Once you have established that you have a complaint with an expectation of change, it is useful to pay attention to the following kinds of helping relationships:

  1. Visitor Type Relationship


  2. This category of relationship occurs when during the course of an interaction about a problem it is clear that the participants have been unable to come up with a complaint or a goal (see note on the criteria for workable goals). The person may have gripes, but there is no expectation of change and solution.

    What to do: Give lots of positive feedback for what is going right and/or let the person know that you appreciate what a tough time he/she is having. You can even be very worried about his/her future and consequences of not solving the problem(s). Immediately offer another appointment, during which goal negotiation can take place. You must be willing to accept that some people may never pass this stage. Keep in mind, that after successful resolution/goal achievement you will have returned to this type of helping relationship.

  3. Complainant Type Relationship


  4. The person is very observant and detailed in the description of complaints, usually is good at describing the patterns and sequences. By the end of the assessment phase it is clear that you and this person have the beginnings of a goal and some expectation of change and solution. The person, however, is not committed to taking steps to solve the problems and/or it is not clear to him/her that he/she must take steps to find solutions.

    What to do: The person has identified what the solution would look like and there is some expectation of change, but the decision that he/she must take steps is not quite there yet. Therefore it would be advisable to limit any tasks to give to the person to thinking or observation. He/she is more likely to comply with such a directive, thus, reducing the possibility of building “resistance.”

  5. Customer Type Relationship


  6. By the end of the assessment phase it is clear that you and the person have together constructed a compliant which includes at least the beginnings of a goal and some expectations of solution. The person also becomes aware that the solution requires him/her to take necessary actions. The person expresses verbally and non-verbally he/she is ready to DO something to find a solution.

    What to do: Since the person is willing to take steps towards a solution, you can go ahead and give behavioral tasks or other advice. The next step is to monitor his/her behaviors towards solution.

    Words of caution: As stated earlier, not all helping relationships fall into neat categories. This is just a guideline. When not sure, it is better to take a conservative approach. Also, keep in mind that this is a description of relationships, not people.

    (copyright: NWBBTC, 2007, Insoo Kim Berg 1989)

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