Newsletter 635 – Helping People Wherever They Are

Jean-Christophe in robeJean-Christophe Bieselaar is one of my closest friends (shown here with his son Paul). Born, raised and currently living in Paris,  Jean-Christophe is consulting pastor of one Parisian church, Parish Associate at The American Church in Paris, and a chaplain at five hospitals. We kept in contact during the night of the recent terrorist attacks and I was impressed (but not surprised) at how he responded as the events unfolded. The following principles are well known but sometimes forgotten when crises arise in our own environments.

  • Try to remain calm. Jean-Christophe wrote that there was no chaos in the hospitals. The professional staff was “calm, focused and organized”. Calmness in caregivers tends to spread, especially to people who are afraid and agitated.
  • Resist the urge to rush to the location of the crises. Have you heard about counselors, medical people, or church groups who rush to the places of tragedy, including trips overseas in times of national disasters? These people go with good intentions, but they don’t know what is needed and get in the way of local responders who understand the situation better.
  • Be alert to the place where you’ve been planted. Jean-Christophe went to two churches where he normally serves. One is a young adult congregation. “They were all speechless and shocked. They had never faced anything like that. I encouraged them to turn their eyes from TV and their mobile devices. We read some Psalms particularly Ps 121 and I asked them to focus on John 14.1. Then we spent a long time praying. And the peace of God came upon us all like a healing water”. After this, my friend went to the E.R. at a hospital where he is known and works.
  • Notice the recommendation to turn off media broadcasts. Watching endless media reruns or commentary can arouse, rather than reduce anxiety. In addition, media consumption can lead to fear-inspiring addiction. This stuff is fascinating to watch.
  • Do what you do best in the setting where you’ve been planted. Jean-Christophe worked in the places and with the people where he is known. Few of us can do much in Paris right now, but what about the nervous people in our churches or workplaces? Do you have neighbors with friends or relatives in Paris? Could they benefit from your support, encouragement and prayers?
  • Keep focused on the peace and hope that comes from God and on empowerment from the Holy Spirit.

What would you add? Please comment.

Newsletter 614 – Robot Counseling (with video)

human-looking robot 2Robots have never much influenced me. Of course we’re all aware of the role of robots on assembly lines, in routine cleaning activities, or in search and rescue operations where humans cannot go. Movies built around robot characters have never interested me, but my curiosity was triggered by a series of featured articles in June 2015 Harvard Business Review. Built around the theme of human-machine interaction in business, the articles describe the impact and effectiveness of computers and robots that:

  • learn and utilize basic knowledge and skills with extraordinary speed,
  • replace the need for many skilled workers,
  • often know much more than any one human being could know or remember,
  • “are beginning to make inroads in areas involving creativity, dexterity, and emotional perceptiveness,” and
  • even can be used as employee supervisors (one HBR article is titled “When your Boss Wears Metal Pants.”)

The magazine shows how robots and people can collaborate and do things that neither could do on their own. And there’s evidence that robots can be more influential and are more trusted when they look like humans (like the robot pictured. To see it move and talk, click the link at the end of this post.) This caused me to wonder how robots – can be used in ministry, management, leadership and even counseling.

Some interesting Internet searches followed. They revealed, among other examples, how robots can be used in guidance counseling, physical therapy, improving mood and quality of life in dementia patients, providing therapy for autistic children,assisting students with learning difficulties and even doing basic marriage counseling and psychotherapy. Robots can be good diagnosticians when they are programmed to pick up verbal and movement cues that can help diagnose different psychological disorders.

Probably none of us is into robot therapy, robot leadership or robot development, but research in these areas may point to interesting and potentially useful alliances between humans and machines. Potential ethical implications of all this will arise when sophisticated machines are used to impact other human beings maybe in destructive, harmful ways. All of this can have potential for care-giving, leading and people-developing. I have wondered if Jesus or the early churches would have cared about this? Should we? Please comment.

Newsletter 605 – A Psychological Analysis of Encouragement?

Be a People HelperIn terms of sales, my most successful book has been a little volume titled How to Be a People Helper. I wrote it in a week (usually it takes many months or even years) after a series of talks that I gave to seminary students. The book has been translated into a number of languages and still is in print. For years my work centered on people-helping and teaching others to be counselors. But like every other field, counseling has changed over time and the people-helper book and cover artwork have become outdated. The publishing industry also has changed. So have potential readers of this book. So have I.

My interest in people-helping persists but today I’m more focused on people-building, focusing less on counseling and more on coaching and journeying with emerging students and leaders. Encouragement is at the core of this work, and the Bible even describes encouragement as a God-given spiritual gift that some people have in abundance (Romans 12:6, 8).

No such analysis appears in a article titled “The Psychology of Encouragement.” Published in The Counseling Psychologist (February, 2015), the author defines encouragement using psychological terminology: it’s “an expression of affirmation…to instill courage, perseverance, confidence, inspiration or hope within the context of addressing a challenging situation [challenged-focused encouragement], realizing potential, ”or reaching a goal [potential-focused encouragement]. The article describes how encouragement might be measured, related research findings, its diverse manifestations (individual and group encouragement, for example), and proposes something called a Tripartite Encouragement Model that can be used in counseling and in other settings like teaching, family therapy, leadership or coaching.

Analyzes like this can be useful, but might we over-scrutinize something that is such a common way for expressing support? Over-analyzed or not, probably encouragement needs to be a more prominent part of our people-helping and people-building practices.

As a footnote, I apologize for not yet responding to those of you who commented on the previous two newsletters. Thanks for your responses. And can I encourage you to respond again and leave a comment about this post and your experiences with encouragement?

Newsletter 600 – Why Aren’t You an Innovator?

innovationbulb Have you ever thought about writing a book, starting a business, planting a church, or quitting your day job to try something different? What’s holding you back? Inc magazine (February 2015) notes that “the default state of the human psyche is doubt, fear of failure, and avoidance of regret. For some reason entrepreneurs aren’t wired that way.” But more of us “see risk around every corner.” Fear holds us back so we dream about what might be but we never take action to make things happen. How do we overcome that fear? One Inc columnist writes that the answer is to plan.

That’s way too simplistic. There is no one answer. Planning is valuable. So is goal-setting. But consider these other issues that have a bearing on our ability to overcome fear and do something new or innovative:

  • Personality. Do you have a risk-taker mentality or orientation? Some people will resist stepping out regardless of the plan, goal, or potential. Forcing these people (including ourselves) to take risks rarely works.
  • People. Some innovators work well alone, but innovation or goal-accomplishment is more likely in those who work with others, have support, or connect with coaches and mentors who give encouragement, and guidance. Have you ever kept going because somebody believed in you?
  • Patience and persistence. Inventions and innovative ideas can be slow to develop. Good books, academic theses and doctoral dissertations usually take a long time to write. It takes years to master a musical instrument, acquire a new language, or develop top proficiency in a sport.
  • Possibilities. This week I read a book chapter about the role of luck in innovations and success. Malcolm Gladwell, Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates all attribute some of their successes to luck. Whether or not you believe in luck (I don’t) it is clear that some success comes from opportunities that arise, the education or environments that we experience, the innate abilities that we inherit, or from being in the right place at the right time. Christians are likely to see the hand of God in all this.
  • Prayer. Never underestimate the power of God to guide or provide what we need to innovate.

Business magazines place a high value on innovation. Maybe too high. What if we never innovate or reach goals, but dutifully use what we’ve got to improve the world around us? Is that failure? Please comment.

Newsletter 572 – Why Do People Helpers and Leaders Resist Help for Themselves?

Most people at work [including counselors, pastors and students]…divert considerable energy every day to a second job that no one has hired them to do: building and preserving their reputations, putting their best selves forward, and hiding their inadequacies from others and themselves. We believe this is the single biggest cause of wasted resources in nearly every company [and organization] today.

Helping 1This quotation is taken from a contemporary business magazine. The article argues that it is best for an organization and for individuals to face this reality and find ways to get help and even turn their struggles into growth opportunities. Set this against a major article in Monitor on Psychology (April 2014). Researchers focused on psychologists who spend their days helping others but neglect to care for themselves. The result is a high incidence of burnout, depression, vicarious traumatization and compassion fatigue. And that’s not limited to professional therapists and graduate students.

What deters people like you and me from getting needed help? The answers are not surprising: social stigma, fear of emotion, resistance to self-disclosure, and difficulty admitting personal distress. For some it is lack of time and resources, difficulty finding a therapist who will keep quiet, resistance to going to a colleague or former student, concerns lest revealing personal stress can adversely impact one’s professional reputation. There’s even a sense that getting help might not do any good.

Nevertheless, the Monitor researchers found that the outside help was effective and valued among most of those who’d had the courage to reach out. Getting help for personal problems benefits personal and professional effectiveness. Organizations, church boards and academic institutions can help by making resources available and encouraging growth through therapy and coaching. Some research even suggests that companies benefit when they encourage their employees to seek available assistance. For individuals it may be best to talk with a friend or mentor who can be trusted. When these resources are not available maybe you can find a helper who does not know you. Whatever we do, it rarely works to handle these things alone. The Bible emphases repeatedly that we need each other. Lone-rangers often self-destruct.

It would be good to  hear how others have benefited from counseling or coaching, or what you’ve learned about helping others get needed help. Please comment.

Newsletter 564 – Why Do Smart People Make Stupid Decisions?

DecisionsLast week’s Newsletter (#563) reviewed Philip Yancey’s new book The Question that Never Goes Away: Why. The book alerted me to the number of Why? Questions I was hearing from my friends: “Why did I spend thousands to get a degree and now can’t find a job?” “Why was my application for graduate school rejected without being read?” “Why did my cousin commit suicide this week?” Yancey shows that God never answers the Why? Questions but he permits tragedies that mold us. He wants to see how we respond. To use a cliché, do we get better or bitter? Do we acknowledge the grief or loss and then try to move on? Or do we wallow in misery and bitterness but never recover?

Have you ever pondered how tragedies and disappointments so often lead to unwise decisions and actions? To rephrase the title of this post: Why do otherwise rational people make irrational–sometimes self-destructive—decisions in times of stress? We see this prominently when politicians, people in ministry, and others make unwise decisions, sink their careers and destroy their families. Reasons include these:

  • The brain responds to intense emotion—fear, sadness, strong sexual and other arousal—by temporarily shutting down the cognitive, rational, thinking parts of the brain. This heightens our sensory system and narrows our cognitive focus so we are better able to detect stressors. As a result we make decisions with a narrow focus, miss the bigger picture, and take actions that are regretted later.
  • We lose perspective when we face trauma. For example, we dwell on the losses and fail to notice what might be positive in tough situations. Dwelling on the negative can lead to the destructive bitterness that counselors encounter and the Bible cautions against (Eph 5:31-2.)
  • We are influenced by people who pull us down and encourage us to take unwise actions while we’re in the midst of emotional overload. Involvement with a supportive community or caring friend can help maintain a more balanced view.
  • We see no reason to hope so we throw caution to the wind and move forward with unwise thinking and actions. Here is where our core values and belief systems become important. There’s a difference when one’s “hope is in the Lord.”

What would you add to this list? When we know reasons for unwise decisions in times of stress, we are better able to help others.  Please respond.

Newsletter 563 – Why Do Bad Things Happen?


Yancey - WhyShortly before Christmas in 2012, a man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and began shooting at terrified seven-year old kindergarteners and school staff. Twenty-six people died, along with the gunman and his mother. A few days later author Philip Yancey was invited to speak at a community-wide memorial service. Yancey’s earlier book Where is God When it Hurts, had sold 1.5 million copies, and early this month he published a follow-up, The Question That Never Goes Away: Why. This is a short, reflective book that draws on the author’s experiences and interviews with people in Newtown, Sarajevo Japan (where many were swept out to sea after the 2004 tsunami), Boston following the marathon killings, Virginia Tech after the shootings there, Columbine, and parts of the southern US devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Why does a good and loving God permit this? Why does the Bible never answer this question? Why does he quietly stand aside while agnostics and other critics mock God and make fun of believers? Yancey struggles with questions like these and describes life changing experiences in his own life where he suffered and cried out to a silent God for answers. Can any topic be closer to the work of counselors, religious leaders, and others who help people deal with the why questions? If you are a people helper (we all are, Galatians 6: 2-3) you might want to read Yancey’s new book.

Don’t expect deep philosophical or theological arguments and reasoned conclusions. Philip Yancey is a superb story-teller and sobering commentator. Here are some of his observations:

  • God never promises to protect us from calamities or tragedies.
  • Well-intentioned cliché comments do not help in crises. Just show up and say nothing rather than “This will all turn out for good,” or “God just wants your loved one to be with him!”
  • People heal faster and better when they are connected with caring communities.
  • Pain, grief and why? questions never go away but how we respond can be healing. It is understandable to grieve about the loss of a future but never forget what we enjoyed for a while in the past.

Yancey’s book left me sobered and thinking more about God. Maybe that’s what the author intended. Please comment, especially if you’ve read Philip Yancey’s new book.