Helene had been with her company for sixteen years. She was advised to contact a coach by her boss, who had observed that Helene found it hard to give actionable feedback. He believed that being a top talent meant that sometimes you have to give tough feedback, that might not always be deemed welcome or desirable.

Helene told me firmly in our first session that she did not believe she could change. Nevertheless, she was open and curious to know more.

Helene needed facts to be convinced, so we talked about capability versus congeniality and the body of work, proving that the more successful a man is, the more he is adored. However, the more successful a woman is, the more she is loathed. Research findings have confirmed that while men are expected to be influential, self-assured, and accomplished, women are expected to be kind, understanding, helpful, and heartfelt.

One of the questions I asked Helene was “What’s the difficulty for you here?”

Helene explained that within her team, there were several different personalities. Her role was to assist in their development. She felt that focusing on their positive aspects created an atmosphere of harmony and congruence.

I asked her again, “What’s the difficulty for you here?”

“Giving negative feedback. I hate upsetting people, especially since we are all friends.”

We looked at the word negative. How could we reframe it? How could we view this as an opportunity for her team member and her? Helene agreed that providing feedback is one of the most important things you can do for your team, and her boss’s input to her had been very helpful and constructive. We looked at how she could create a team culture where giving and receiving feedback became the standard and not something awkward.

Together we created a plan where she would seek opportunities to give recommendations and in turn, ask her team for feedback, consistently and frequently, until it became the norm. Giving feedback is a skill and is learnable. When you provide it to help the person to grow and flourish, it has a long-lasting promising effect on the individual.

Giving feedback should always be with the intent of helping, and indeed helping is an essential human pursuit. We do it at home with our partners, our children, and our loved ones. We do it every day. We seek out help too, although all too often it’s a practice that can be difficult to perform and accept. And at times, our earnest offers to help are resented and rebuffed. So why is it so difficult to provide or get help, and in what way can we make the whole process easier?

Corporate culture and organisational development guru Ed Schein analysed the collective and psychological subtleties common to all types of helping relationships. In his book Helping, he explains why help is often not helpful and shows why any would-be helpers must guarantee that their assistance is both received and valuable. He suggests the following stages of enquiring to enable genuine support:

  Always begin with a humble enquiry.

Effective helping begins with readiness. By merely listening to the client’s story, using humble inquiry as Schein calls the process strategy at this stage, the client begins to feel like there is a better balance in the relationship just by being heard. That starts the development of trust. “Be cautious not to fall into the diagnostic trap too early,” he advises.

Experts are more comfortable with the kinds of questions that lead to solutions. “Who was at the meeting? When did you meet? What did the other party say? How did the language in that meeting compare to prior email communications?” Using those kinds of diagnostic questions too early may impede the development of the relationship. The quality of informed items is an essential factor in a client’s decision, and informed questions tend to be diagnostic. Indeed, when I work with organisations, I always remind them that the three most important words in business are “Tell me more.”

Schein uses process enquiry to describe the underlying process of relationship-building and problem-solving, not to focus on the substance of the problem. For example, the question “How would you see a successful outcome?” after an initial consultation turns the focus to the client’s expectation of the process outcome. That question might uncover a discomfort with the unintended consequences. Occasional questions during meetings, for example, “How can we better communicate about this topic?” and “How am I doing in keeping you informed?”, turn the focus to the relationship, keeping it dignified between you and the other as input is sought, which in turn continues to build trust.

“Bad help means asking the wrong kind of questions,” Edgar Schein

However, by using the previous strategies, you can avoid giving the wrong type of help, whether at work, with your children, or with your spouse. I have found this book to be fundamental not only on a professional level but also on a personal one. I was fortunate, as I fell upon this book when my mother was diagnosed with cancer. The book helped me ask the right questions so that I could assist, care, and be present until the end.

How to Get Out of Your Own Way

Tips to Increase Your Empathy

It is possible to develop empathy towards others by using these three tips:

1. Do not take account of yourself. It is essential to forget about your principles, judgements, values, and beliefs, and all that can limit the understanding of the other, to have empathy.

2. Know how to listen. Listening without interrupting the other person and asking questions about his or her perception of the world or the situation helps you to get to know him or her better. Remember that silent and listen have the same letters.

3. Increase emotional understanding. Each emotion can cause a lack and a different reaction from one individual to another.


  • Sunita Sehmi

    Organisational Dev I Exec Leadership Coach I Author I Mentor I

    Walk The Talk

    Org Dev Consultant I Exec Leadership Performance Coach I DEI Warrior I Author I Mentor I Work smarter I Live better I Think deeper. With over three decades of expertise in multicultural environments, Sunita brings a unique blend of Indian, British, and Swiss heritage to her consultancy, fostering a deep understanding of organisational contexts and her clients. Sunita’s insights and expertise are tailored to elevate your leadership.