Helping Reflections by Dr. Stanley McCracken & Jeff Levy
Updated: Feb 22
I think that the specifics of helping changes depending on whom I’m trying to help. In general, however, I like the metaphor of a journey: where is the person now, where do they want to go, and what is the best way to get there. My job as a helper is not to take the person there, but to facilitate the journey—that is, the client is always in the driver’s seat.
Together we explore. What resources, both internal and external, can the person draw on to help them, and what have they drawn on to get them where they are now? What are the barriers and roadblocks?
Often my job is just to listen and be present. Sometimes my job is to facilitate discovery and learning. Sometimes my job is to assist in identifying resources. Sometimes we may need to (re-)evaluate the destination—why is it important, is there a better one?
Mostly, I just try to be useful and to remember CHERS—approach the person and the situation with compassion and curiosity, humility, empathy, respect, and sensitivity.
At the end of the day it is just us humans doing the best we can.
Dr. Stanley McCraken University of Chicago SSA
Over the years, what I have learned most about helping is that what constitutes help for one person does not necessarily constitute help for others. The idiosyncratic nature of help is perhaps its biggest strength as well as its biggest challenge. As a helper this requires a high level of attainment and discernment, as well as a commitment to be uniquely present to each person with whom we meet.
Sometimes helping means listening quietly and without judgement. Nothing more is requested nor required. Other times, helping means actively engaging verbally, responding to questions and even, when requested, giving advice—which I know is controversial for some helpers and may even be something we are “taught” to avoid or redirect. Still, I’ve found that in some relationships it is possible to lean into the history and information we have about a client to share advice grounded in “practice based evidence” (e.g. “When you have made a similar decision in the past, you know you’ve gotten the results you’d hoped for, so it seems like that kind of course of action might work here as well.”)
There are other times when our clinically trained astute interventions designed to help aren’t what our clients most remember as helpful or transformational. I remember reading Yalom a number of years ago when he was talking with his patients about what they found most helpful about a particular session. What surprised him the most was that it wasn’t his pithy comments people most remembered. Instead, they remembered the shake of his hand at the end of a session, the pat on a back, and the compliment he gave about the color of a sweater. Reading this, and even thinking about it now, reminds that often what is most helpful is the presence of our own humanity in the room
And I don’t think I can talk about helping without also talking about what has been most helpful to me. I probably became a helper because I was conditioned to the role early in my life, grounded in my experiences in my family. I am most comfortable asking what others need and least comfortable reaching out. And though I know it’s frustrating to my friends who wish I would reach out more, ask more, invite more—what has been most helpful to me has been those people who have been “persistently consistent” over time. These are my friends who: despite my long delays in responding to email, text messages that I “lose” over time, or voicemails that become irrelevant because of the length of time it takes me to respond, continue to reach out to me knowing that my biggest challenge is accepting the help that is offered to me. Their persistence has been immensely helpful. I hope that these thoughts have been helpful.”
Jeff Levy, LCSW Psychotherapist in Private Practice Founder and Executive Director, The Wingspan Project Co-Founder and Former CEO, Live Oak, Inc.
This interview is from our book パープル:manos