The Paradox of Helping

The Paradox of Helping

I had the privilege of attending the Lifeline Brass Blokes Awards in my hometown of Newcastle last night. The Awards recognise the spirit of ‘blokes’ who have been through adversity yet still find the time, courage and inspiration to give back to their community. As well as celebrate these men, the event raises awareness of men’s mental health and suicide, plus raises funds for Lifeline Hunter Central Coast. It was a special night.

One of the unique features of the awards was the ‘entertainment’. It involved a panel (in this case Mark Hughes, Kurt Fernley and Nic Newling) discussion where a few invited guests talked through their own experiences in dealing with adversity and how they gave back to their community. You may not be surprised why these awards appealed to me.

During the panel discussion, a comment by Nic really struck a chord with me. When asked about ways that we can ‘help’ someone with a mental health problem, he suggested listening is key. The secret he said was not to try to sort things out for the other person, instead focus on being present and attentive to the other person’s situation and focus on listening.

Could it be that listening is one critical skill that we all need to focus on if our aim is to ‘help’ others? What lessons could we take from Lifeline about how to best help someone in a time when life doesn’t feel worth living anymore?

This got me to thinking further about what does it mean to ‘help’? Could what we think is ‘help’, actually be quite the opposite for those we think we are helping? What if our ‘help’ made things worse? What may be the outcome if we impose our ‘help’ on others who are not seeking the type of ‘help’ that we are offering? If we constantly focus on fixing other peoples problems, could it have the effect of contributing to their pain, as they feel helpless to fix things for themselves? Further, what could it mean for the resilience of others if we constantly impose our ‘help’ on them?

The Paradox of Helping.

I had some good conversations last night, none better than with my friend John who has many years experience ‘helping’ others in this situation and knows a thing or two about what others may need in a time of despair. John is also a believer that listening can be the greatest help that you could give someone, especially someone contemplating suicide.

One of the most challenging questions John and I tackled was “could committing suicide be the best outcome for someone”?

To even contemplate this question, perhaps one needs to first accept the paradox, complexity and messiness of life, and more importantly consider the question from the perspective of others, not self.

The answer that I suspect most people would respond with is a resounding no. How could someone taking his or her life be anything but bad?

What if we thought about this in a different way? A way focused on better understanding other people instead of imposing our own values, and controlling them? What if the only real decision that person felt like they had control of, was the decision to take their own life? Could at least being in control of that decision be better than living a life of despair, anger, guilt, pain and/or suffering? Of course, the reality is that we could never know the answer to this question, and I suspect, nor can the other person.

The Paradox of Helping. How can we ever really know what is the best ‘help’ for others?

Could it be that if our agenda is for others to be free (of guilt, anger, pain and despair etc…) that we need to reject the urge (and seduction) to impose our own values, beliefs and control onto them and instead, feel comfort that others are making decisions for themselves? Of course, when we understand the paradox of helping, we recognise that this may cause pain for us in doing so.

Do we try to ‘help’ at all cost because the pain of not helping (e.g. suicide) is too much for us to deal with, rather than considering what is best for others? This is such a challenging situation to consider, and I suspect one that is counter intuitive for most of us. I understand this. I don’t want anyone I know to die, but I do want people to be free to live and make their own decisions. The Paradox of Helping?

I can’t imagine the pain, suffering and anguish that someone who is considering taking their own life may feel, I imagine there is no pain like this in living. Consider how someone who is feeling this pain may feel if they constantly sense they needed to be ‘fixed’. Isn’t their pain enough already?

Imagine being in a situation where you were contemplating ending your life because you felt there was just nothing else that could be done to deal with your pain. Then, in a last desperate attempt to reach out, you pick up the phone. At the end of the line is someone who is there to listen and ‘meet’ you. Not to fix you, just to listen. The listening may just be the ‘help’ you are after.

Maybe the listening doesn’t fix the situation you are in. Maybe the source of your pain and suffering continue. But if you have someone who can hear your story, without judgment and opinion, maybe (and of course, it has to be maybe, as there is no certainty in life), that is enough ‘help’ to get you through that terrible moment of loneliness and pain?

I find these tough questions. I suspect that if I was faced with the question that John and I talked about last night just a few years ago, that my answer and my thinking, would be very different.

For those of us who love to talk and spark up a conversation, perhaps being conscious of listening more is the critical if we are to truly ‘help’ people.

Perhaps so to is, understanding The Paradox of Helping?

If you are in a situation where you would like someone to listen without judgment and opinion you can call Lifeline on 131144. They may not be able to ‘fix’ your situation, but that’s probably not what you need or want, you probably just want someone who will listen to, and ‘meet’ you.

If you’d like to support Lifeline deliver it’s vital and important services, why not join their 8 for a Mate program?


The Paradox of Helping, what does this mean for you?

As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and comments.

Author:           Robert Sams

Phone:             0424 037 112



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Dolphyn Newsletter # 5

 Dolphyn Newsetter #5


“Being present to people requires a degree of fragility. To keep control or to impose an agenda only ensures we are about to have a meeting in which no real meeting is likely to take place”


Graham Long (2013, p.74 and p.75)

These are the words of The Reverend Graham Long, Pastor and CEO of The Wayside Chapel. Graham’s words are prophetic and special and The Wayside’s approach of ‘meeting’ people rather than ‘fixing’ them is foundational to their success.

Graham and the team at The Wayside preach ‘Love Over Hate’ and their mission is to “create a community with no us and them”. I think there is a lot that risk and safety could learn from the team at The Wayside.

In this edition of Dolphyn’s Newsletter, we explore what it means to better understand and ‘meet’ people and how this might help create “a community with no us and them” to better support others deal with, and understand risk.



What Can ‘Safety’ Learn From a Rock…..

What Can ‘Safety’ Learn From a Rock…..

I live in Australia, a country inhabited by people from many cultures, a country with a strong indigenous history and a country with a geography that is well summed up by poet Dorothea Mackellar in her poem My Country;

“I love a sunburnt country, A land of sweeping plains, Of ragged mountain ranges, Of droughts and flooding rains. I love her far horizons, I love her jewel-sea, Her beauty and her terror – The wide brown land for me!” (read the full poem here)

Australia is a beautiful land with so much richness and history. We have much to see, to explore and to understand. But if limit our view of the world, and if we were to explore our ‘wide brown land’ by looking at our many wondrous features only as “objects” and one dimensionally by relying only on our sight, we would miss so much.

“When we don’t use all of our senses, as well as our heart and mind to explore and understand our world, we limit our learning, our understanding and most importantly our living. When we take a more holistic view of the world, open our eyes to look at things as more than objects, when we use all of our senses to feel, taste, hear and smell, what we might experience could really enhance our lives.”

I recently had the privilege of visiting Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock), which is right in the heart of Australia. I’d wanted to visit for many years (it was on the bucket list) to see, feel, hear and discover for myself the many wonderful things that I had read and heard about ‘the rock’.

You can read the full article first published HERE

Developing our Inner Introversion

Developing Our Inner Introversion

…..the art of questioning becomes more difficult as status increases. Our culture emphasizes that leaders must be wiser, set direction and articulate values, all of which predisposes them to tell rather than ask”.

Edgar Schein in Humble Inquiry (2013, p.5)

I attended a ‘thinking group’ meeting last week with a new group of people that I hadn’t met before. While I was reflecting on the gathering afterwards, one thing that occurred to me was that among the people that I was with, I was the last to introduce myself. In fact, I didn’t speak at all (aside from a short “Hi, I’m Rob) for the first 15 minutes or so. There were new people to meet and I was interested in ‘their stories’. We had a great chat and I got to know some interesting new people.

Wind the clock back a couple of years however, and given the same setting, I would have been busting at the bit to be the first to speak, to be the center of attention in the meeting and generally being the extroverted and energetic guy I had been known for.

I have observed this often from my peers in risk and safety where being extroverted and energetic is often seen as critical for success. To be described as ‘passionate’, ‘engaging’, and ‘energetic’ seems to be a sign of preeminence. It seems that being an ‘extrovert’ is synonymous with being passionate about, caring for and to be frank, being ‘good’ at safety. But is this right? To be successful in risk and safety do we need to come across as outgoing, passionate and engaging? If this is our style, if our preference is to ‘engage first’ rather than ‘ask and listen’, what does this mean for our relationships with others?

I wonder if there is a need for those of is working in risk and safety to take time out to think about how we go about things? What benefit would come from more listening, inquiring and understanding rather than jumping in with answers, solutions, and instructions?


How I Feel About Risk

How I Feel About Risk

“The earliest studies of risk perception also found that, where as risk and benefit tend to be positively correlated in the world, they are negatively correlated in people’s minds.”

“If their feelings toward an activity are favorable, they are moved toward judging the risks as low and the benefits as high; if their feelings towards it are unfavorable, they tend to judge the opposite – high risk and low benefit.”

Slovic (2010, p.26)

These are the thoughts of Paul Slovic from his 2010 book,The Feeling of Risk.

Readers of this site will be familiar with the proposition that risk is subjective. This of course does not mean that everyone accepts this notion, as I know that there are many in risk and safety that continue to argue that risk is objective. However, there is certainly more discussion about the subjective nature of risk than when I started in the industry over 20 years ago.

When we accept that risk is subjective, that it is connected to feelings and emotions, and that many of our decisions and judgments about risk are not always made in a rational, analytical and logical way, we may be better able to understand and support people to deal with risk.

An experience that I shared with a good friend last week is a good example of ‘how I feel about risk’ can impact on the decisions that I make about it.

To begin this story, I should point out that I’m a car fan; this dates back to my childhood. I love to drive in, and experience, different cars; I find them fun and enjoyable. In particular, I like fast cars. My wife De knows this, so of course a perfect Christmas present for me was a voucher for a one-hour drive in a Lamborghini.

I was on a high leading up to last weekend when I would use the voucher and share the drive with my great mate Macca. We’ve been talking for months now about how fun the drive would be. One might say we were pumped and feeling favorable about the activity.


Learning from people who we don’t agree with

Learning from people who we don’t agree with

I recently read this article, shared with me by a friend, and written by Mark Brandi a former ministerial adviser in the Bracks Labor government in Victoria, Australia.

The article got me thinking of the many conversations I have had with good friend James Ellis over recent months, where we have talked about the importance of learning from people who we don’t agree with, or who share different views from our own. Image Source

For me, the following quotes from the article sum it up well, and form my thesis for this piece:

“Online forums have become echo chambers where polemic masquerades as discussion and devotees crave the “gotcha” moment that confirms their prejudice. On Facebook and Twitter, participants seek out those who reflect or reinforce their own views. Real conversations are rare.  Without doubt, social media enhances our ability to connect and share knowledge. Paradoxically, the lack of engagement with opposing views disconnects us from reality.

Retweet. Like. Share. This could be doing us a disservice. If we are isolated from opposing views, we cannot test the strength of our arguments. If we surround ourselves only with those who agree, we will not convince anyone.

Online activism, while alluring, is not a replacement for real conversations.”

This resonated with me as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we deal with, and make sense of the views and thoughts of people who don’t agree with me.


The Dynamics of Dehumanisation

Reflections of a ‘Doer’

Does learning more about ourselves help us to better understand and influence others?

I’ve learnt that if we are going to change the way things are done in risk and safety that the focus needs to be more on ‘influencing’ than ‘controlling’. In this piece, I’d like to explore the concept of learning more about ‘self’ in order to better understand and influence others. I’ll do this by sharing stories of my own experiences.

I am naturally a doer. Some describe me as an ‘Action Jackson’ and a person who likes to get things done. I like to organise and see things through to completion. For anyone familiar with the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), my personality and type is ENFJ. It is the ‘J’ that drives what I describe above. (Of course understanding me is more than just applying a four letter label to me, but that’s a whole other Blog!)

For people who ‘know’ me only through my blog posts, you may be surprised when reading the description above. Based on the feedback that I receive, I know that one theme people may take from what I write is that I’m ‘anti-organising’, as I do ask a lot of questions on this subject.


Newsletter # 4 – May 2015

Dolphyn Newsletter # 4 – The Learning Adventure Continues

Learning to Embrace Ambiguity

“Organisations, despite their apparent preoccupation with facts, numbers, objectivity, concreteness and accountability, are in fact saturated with subjectivity, abstraction, guesses, making do, invention and arbitrariness, just like the rest of us”
Karl E. Weick (1969, p.5)

One of the things that stands out in our study of social psychology as it applies to dealing with risk, is that while people crave certainty, clarity and clear process, the world is full of grey, of ‘messiness’ and ambiguity. When leaders and organisations learn about, and can get their head around this, we can begin to understand that despite the best planning, the best processes (both of which are needed) and no matter the amount of regulation, things will not always go to plan.

We know that risk is about uncertainty. We also know that ‘the unexpected’ will always occur. Perhaps then, it is those organisations who focus on learning, who are adaptable and who seek to understand people that will work towards what Karl Wick refers to as a High Reliability Organisation.

In this edition of Dolplyn’s Newsletter, we share stories, research, learning and look at different ways to explore and understand risk. We hope you enjoy sharing in our learning adventure.



Culture of Care (and sackings…)

Culture of Care (and sackings…)

I caught up with a good friend Martin over the weekend and he was telling me about his work situation. Martin works in heavy industry as a contractor, he has done most of his life and he’s now in his mid 40’s.

Martin is currently contracting at a mine that is owned by a large company I think he said was called Neo Bingo, or at least something that sounded like that. We got to talking about safety (although I usually try to avoid this topic, it inevitably comes up in my social conversations) and Martin was telling me how working at Neo Bingo was as bad as it gets when it comes to safety. Martin shared his story with me, which reminded me of other similar stores.

Read the full story, first published HERE

I believe that there are many good people who work in safety. They do care for people, they do want to educate and support learning, but when you work in organisations like ‘Bingo’, it does things to you. The social arrangements and construct that we work in does affect our decisions and judgments, and I don’t imagine how working in ‘Bingo’ could be anything other than about control and power.

As an industry, and with the many good people that work in it, I hope we can lead ourselves through this. I hope that one day that I may be proud to say that I ‘work in safety’ and people don’t instantly think of me as a crusader. Sadly, I’m not sure that day will come, so in the mean time, I will continue on my learning adventure trying to better understand how to support and scaffold people to better appreciate why we do what we do.

Do you see a day when ‘safety’ will be about people, about understanding, about empathy and compassion, or will control continue to reign the day?

As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and comments.