Book Review: Helping the Client: A Creative Practical Guide.

By John Heron, published by Sage (1990) and available in paperback at around IR£10.00. (about 170 pages)

This book is one of a number of works produced by John Heron in the last decade or so. Others in a similar vein include The Facilitator’s Handbook, Kogan Page, 1989 and A Handbook for Leaders, University of Surrey Press, 1990.

The content of the book is the result of much experiment and experiential applica­tion at the University of Surrey since 1975. The group with which Heron was asso­ciated was the ‘Human Potential Research Project’, later renamed the ‘Human Potential Resource Group’.

From a research point of view this is not a helpful book because Heron docs not acknowledge the sources of his ideas and influences. In the preface he does note this by saying that many influences have been ‘thoroughly assimilated into my writ­ing’. There is no bibliography to help the reader in further exploration of the ideas put forward. That is a frustration and a disappointment about the book.

Equally this is not a book to sit with and read from cover to cover. It is really a ref­erence book to remind therapists and group workers of the many options available to them in the course of either group or individual psychotherapy sessions.

Now that I have the gripes out of the way, let me say that I think this is one of those books that every therapist would benefit from having on their shelf because it does outline clearly the various combinations of useful and focused interventions avail­able to the therapist. By virtue of familiarity some therapists will find over time that their awareness of their repertoire of intervention will become stale and that one or two preferred modes will dominate. Heron’s extrapolation of what he calls the Six Category Intervention Model is helpful as a reminder of the possibilities within any session to usefully help the client (to borrow from the title).

The six categories are:

The six category system deals with six basic kinds of intention the practitioner can have while working with clients. Each category is one major class of intention and within it is a whole range of sub-intentions and specific behaviours that manifest them. The system therefore, has a great range of flexibility and power to cover a very wide range of client needs.

Briefly each of the categories may be defined as follows

Prescriptive: Seeks to direct the behaviour of the client.
Informative: Seeks to impart knowledge, information or meaning to the client.
Confronting: Seeks to raise the client’s consciousness about some limiting attitude or behaviour of which they are relatively unaware.
Cathartic: Seeks to enable the client to discharge painful emotion, especially grief, fear and anger.
Catalytic: Seeks to elicit self-discovery, self-directed living, learning and problem-solving in the client.
Supportive: Seeks to affirm the worth and value of the person of the client, their qualities, attitudes and actions.

Underpinning all these is the value of Supporting the client at all times in their work.

Heron is at pains to point out that the six category system is a practical working hypothesis, it is not a dogma. He further notes that there is nothing sacred about the number six.

There are areas of overlap within the categories, for example, informative interven­tions that are confronting, prescriptive interventions that are catalytic and so on. Heron is clear that there is no particular hierarchical value among the categories. They can only be evaluated comparatively in use. The experiential value of any par­ticular intervention is determined by its appropriateness to the situation where it is used.

Of course Heron is not suggesting this is a tool kit that can be simply learned and used. He recognises there are many kinds of helping ranging from giving support to friends and family up to and including spiritual support. Specifically, as far as offer­ing psychological services such as counselling and psychotherapy are concerned Heron is clear that in-depth training and especially sustained personal development is fundamental to the effective use of any intervention with another.

Emotional competence is among the primary aspects of character required in the skilled helper. He defines emotional competence as the ability to ensure that our own anxiety and distress, accumulated from past traumatic experience, does not drive and distort our attempts to help.

There are three levels of emotional competence identified by Heron. The first is the zero level when a person’s helping is always contaminated by hidden, distorted emo­tion and has an oppressive, interfering, inappropriate quality. The second level is identified when a person does help in an emotionally clear and clean way at some times but also slips over at other times into compulsive, intrusive, ‘helping’ without realising that he or she has done so. The third level of emotional competence is when a person makes this kind of slip much less often, knows when it has hap­pened, and can correct it. Above all at the third level the person will have done the kind of psychotherapeutic work on their own past distress such that their under­standing and integration will give them the kind of clarity they need to be effective helpers.

When first approached, the book can seem like a ‘How To’ manual with every even­tuality catered for. This would be an unfair conclusion to draw. The layout of the book and Heron’s intention, is to highlight with copious examples, the effectiveness of the six category system. It is not to restrict the reader to the idea that ‘it must be done this way’. In fact the author strongly encourages practitioners to be creative within their own personality style. The following chart (mine, not Heron’s) sum­marises at a glance the options discussed in the book and indicates that there are at least eighteen different intentions available to the therapist at any moment in the session.

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Each category can be approached with the attitude listed on the right and equally as mentioned earlier each of the categories can be coupled together as appropriate to the situation.

This review does not adequately explore Heron’s work nor does it set out to criti­cally evaluate the work. Its purpose is to give you, the reader, a flavour of his think­ing and perhaps to consider again your own preferred or habitual style of working with clients. In this sense Helping the Client can be a useful reference for self-super­vision. I recommend this book for your shelf.

Alan Mooney