Help, I’m suffering from help reflexes!

When looking for help, most clients like to be treated as an equal human being. They appreciate being seen and heard; sensing that their story, opinion and experience matter. Helpers often act on autopilot with help-reflexes. That has become part of our nature and culture, which we are also taught in training courses. Moreover, help reflexes can arise from the need for control on the part of the practitioner. For example, the practitioner may feel very uncomfortable with the strong emotions of the client and may feel a strong responsibility, while wanting to avoid risk or seeking appreciation.

Interactions become more helpful when the counsellor is optimally attuned to what the other person needs. That is, if he takes care to act because of a conscious choice and not based on ingrained routines such as help reflexes.

Five types of reflexes are discussed below, including a short checklist, which the practitioner can use to score himself after conversations. Awareness should help to avoid using his or her help-reflexes.

The help reflexes can be divided into five types: interpretation, empathy, advice, distraction and correction reflexes. Each reflex is often rooted in a certain presupposition and characteristic behaviour of the practitioner. The sooner you recognize these ingrained habits, the sooner you will be able not give in to them or you will be able to stop once you become aware of them.

The five help reflexes

The interpretation reflex

Assumption of the practitioner: the actual problem lies somewhere else and is much deeper, so am going to find that out.

Behaviour of the practitioner: collecting information, summarizing it, mirroring it, asking questions, interrogating, giving interpretations and diagnoses.

The empathy reflex

Assumption of the practitioner: you are having a hard time, so I need to make you feel better.

Behaviour of the practitioner: reassure, calm down, justify, sympathize, comfort, support, praise, or compliment, and playdown the problem

The advisory reflex

Assumption of the practitioner: you don’t understand what is going on, so I have to explain it to you.

Behaviour of the practitioner: providing information, advice, solutions or logical arguments, explaining or prescribing what the other person should do.

The distraction reflex

Assumption of the practitioner: you feel, think or do something that is too difficult, violent, harmful or pointless for you, so I need to focus your attention on something else.

Behaviour of the practitioner: distract, ignore, tone down, wave aside or talk about something else.

The correction reflex

Assumption of the practitioner:  you’re doing something stupid, bad or dangerous, so I have to stop you.

Behaviour of the practitioner: warn, mention adverse consequences, criticize, preach or reprimand.

Asking questions, giving advice, supporting etc. is not a problem in and of itself. The problem is that it is done routinely, without considering whether the client currently needs advice or support. Moreover, without checking if the unspoken assumptions are correct, we assume that the other person for example does not have the strength, wisdom, knowledge or skills to reach solutions himself.

This approach would ignore what the clients own views are, what they themselves want and are able to do.

Evaluate yourself on unnecessary five help-reflexes

Without help reflexes, all conversations should improve. Pay attention to it for a while. Assess yourself with some regularity. At the end of a conversation, indicate per reflex how well you managed not to react routinely. Give yourself a score of 1-10 or a five-point score such as –, -, +/-, + and ++.

Score on five help-reflexes:

  • The interpretation reflex:
  • The empathy reflex:
  • The advisory reflex:
  • The distraction reflex:
  • The correction reflex: