top of page

Helping by Edgar H. Schein - 3 Big Ideas

This book Scheins.


Welcome to 3 Things You Can Use, where Maddi and I decode the worlds of self-improvement and entrepreneurship through books, three things at a time. This week's book is Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help, by Edgar H. Schein.

"Helping is a fundamental human activity, but it can also be a frustrating one. All too often our sincere offers of help are resented, resisted, or refused—and we often react the same way when people try to help us. In this seminal book on the topic—named one of the top five leadership books of 2009 by strategy+business magazine—Edgar Schein analyzes the social and psychological dynamics common to all types of helping relationships, explains why help is often not helpful, and shows what any would-be helpers must do to ensure that their assistance is both welcomed and genuinely useful."

(^From Amazon)

So, what are three things we can use from this book?

3 Things You Can Use

1. All Interactions

Let's get right into it.

Edgar Schein states that all human interactions are made up of:

  • Status positioning

  • Situational Proprieties

Status positioning being how your status, relative to the situation, relates to the other person's status. I.e. in an office context the boss would have a higher status relative to an underling and in a backgammon tournament the underling might have a higher status than the boss.

And situational proprieties have to do with the context of the situation and what is expected and socially acceptable. For example, if you are in the dentist's office getting your teeth cleaned and your dentist says that you can throw away your neck napkin now and as you go to throw it away your dentist smacks it out of the air and says, "not in my house!" This is so far out of expectation, in this situation, you will probably be offended and/or embarrassed. I.e. the situational proprieties were not respected.

"We want to get ahead or stay even and we want to act as appropriate to the situation."

Recognizing these two properties can be essential in social life and they could save you from the embarrassment of stepping over one or the other.

2. The Two Principles

The two fundamental principles of societies, based on anthropology, the study of humankind, are as follows:

  • All societies are stratified

  • All social behavior is reciprocal and equitable (which means if you do something good for them, they need to do something good for you)

Economic interactions should be equivalent in other words.

So, wherever there is culture, there are these two principles.

All societies are stratified means that there are different levels that you can be on in the society. Different status levels, relative to society as a whole and relative to how you're grading. When you think India you think caste system. In America, and from that same kind of power grading, it goes from president of the United States down to living in the sewer.

And also, when they say that all behavior is reciprocal or equitable, they mean, just like before, that it is relative to status. When you get a gift from someone that is on your status, you feel like you need to reciprocate, by giving them a gift.

Though, as reciprocation is relative, it may still be acceptable to give back less if status or circumstance permit it.

In the case of a wedding gift, a thank you card is all that is necessary to reciprocate getting a gift, and that is due to circumstance. In the case of giving change to a panhandler, the panhandler saying thank you is enough to reciprocate due to the difference in status.

Just thought you might like that.

3. Economic and Theatre

So really, as Schein says, all interactions are partly economical and partly theatre.

Interactions are economical because there is potential trade-off of social resources. This can also be the case financially, but is mainly meant to be framed through status. How either party is trying to maintain or improve their status.

And interactions are theatre because inside situational contexts we all try to play our parts. To play our roles. If we fail to play our roles, we may get booed. We may lose status or embarrass ourselves or the other person.

The next time you are communicating with someone, think about this.

In the economical sense, how are you vying for status throughout your conversation. How are you trying to seem and what are you trying to gain?

How much of your interaction is theatre? What is your role here and what would happen if you ad libbed a little too much here?

Interesting to think about.


Every interaction is comprised of status positioning and situational proprieties

The two fundamental principles of human society are: All societies are stratified and all interactions should be reciprocal.

Try to think about how your current interaction is described both as an economical one and a theatrical one. What are each of you vying for and what roles are you playing?

On a side note, let me add this in here. I found it necessary, though I had no room in the 3 Things.

Getting help is supposed to happen -- so take it! It's an essential part of our cultural makeup, though it's a little harder to recognize now.

Nowadays you get help all the time, you just don't think of it that way. To be able to use a smartphone, you are actually helped by thousands of people. The people that came up with it, improved upon it, built it, hooked it to the satellites and then sold it to you. All of those people helped you to have a working smartphone.

Everything that you use counts as you being helped because of the human influence it took to bring it to you and make it useful.

So to think of it this way, after you realize that help is a necessary part of life, that you get all the time, you don't have to feel bad for getting help if you want it or need it. It's a natural and essential part of human life.

This book is a good one. Another psychology book. Most of this show came from the first half of the book, when he's setting it all up.

In the next part he gets a little more nitty gritty and gives advice for different formats of helping like professional to client and helping in a team. But I left that stuff out because I found the underlying principles more interesting.

I didn't know what to think when I got this book, the title being so vague, but I'm glad I checked it out. Lots of very interesting information and psychology. I recommend it to you if you are interesting in learning more about the interactive dynamics of person to person.

If you liked this show, give it a like!

Thank you for watching, make sure to subscribe so you don't miss next week's video, and we'll see you next week!

Want to Read it?

Audible Free Trial (get this book for free!)

Helping (Audible Version)

Helping (Physical Copy)

(These links give me a commission -- at no extra cost to you. They just give me a little bump if you decide to use them. Thank you!)


Punching Sounds by: Mike Koenig

Reading Photo at end of video by: Marketa

20 views0 comments
bottom of page