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 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 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 567 – Should You Care About Mindfulness?

If I tried choosing the two hottest emerging topics among mental health professionals these days, probably I’d select the focus on how the brain works (see last week’s newsletter) and the fascination with mindfulness. Two very different publications recently featured articles on Mindfulness. Time (February 3, 2014) suggests that “we’re in the midst of a popular obsession with mindfulness as the secret to health and happiness.” Harvard Business Review (March , 2014) describes “mindfulness in the age of complexity,” then shows that “by paying attention to what’s going on around us, instead of operating on autopilot, we can reduce stress, unlock creativity, and boost performance. Neither article has much depth but they show how mindfulness has become something of a fad in the places where we live, work, lead, teach and seek to impact others. Even the U.S. Air Force has a recruiting advertisement for clinical psychologists with these prominent words: Meditation, Relaxation. Deep Breathing. Your Arsenal is More Powerful than you Think. That suggests mindfulness. (American Psychologist, March-April, 2014, Back cover.)

Mindfulness 1Mindfulness is the process of focusing on the present moment, giving full attention to what you are doing in the present and being less caught up in what happened earlier or what’s to come. The HBR article mostly is a listing of all the magical implications and effects of meditation and other mindfulness methods. Time suggests that the popularity comes, in part, from those who promote and market the mindfulness revolution. But the movement keeps growing because an increasing body of respectable research, including studies of the brain, gives evidence that mindfulness does, indeed, live up to many of its claims.

Initially I shied away from mindfulness because of it’s Buddhist roots but then I thought of other apparently useful fields and methodologies that spring from humanism, secular research, and other foundations that in no way are Christian. Some of the mindfulness commentary on meditation sounds like biblical commands to meditate. But biblical writers tell us to meditate on God and his word whereas secular approaches have a different focus. We can use secular based approaches providing we keep aware of the reasons we use them. What are the Christian implications of all this, especially relating to counseling and to leadership? Please comment, including your recommendations for further study or reading.

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.

Newsletter #556 – Keep Calm and Carry On?

Keep Calm and Carry OnThis week I have two close friends who are facing career-defining exams. Both of my friends are approaching this with understandable anxiety. It was appropriate, then, that I forwarded each a copy of “Feeling Anxious? Why Trying to Keep Calm is a Terrible Idea” published in the Fast Company daily blog on December 2, 2013. Each day the blog gives several practical, brief articles relating to leadership and career issues. Anyone can subscribe for free at

The article sent to my friends describes highly visible, boldly-fonted World War II signs that were posted all over Britain. The message, Keep Calm And Carry On encouraged war-ravaged British people to try keeping calm and going about their normal activities even when bombs were dropping almost every night. That’s a terrible idea says the Fast Company writer because staying cool under pressure “totally misses the way emotions work. Anxiety is an automatic physiological arousal in the presence of potential danger. Keeping calm is a cognitive response that rarely works in the presence of physical arousal. “Since arousal is so automatic, it’s hard to control….very, very difficult to do successfully especially leading up to very anxiety-inducing tasks” or experiences.

A better solution is to get excited. This lets the body stay in an amped-up physiological state while the mind goes to something better that focuses away from the fear. In a Harvard study of public speakers nervous about an important speech, subjects who told themselves to get excited performed better: “they gave more persuasive, competent, and persuasive speeches” than those who tried to calm down or others who did nothing to deal with the anxiety.

In reading, I wondered if this is a variation of the power of positive thinking. I wondered, too, if this would have worked with Londoners, told to get excited during the Battle of Britain. Nevertheless, the researcher noted that anxiety distracts us from focusing on real solutions and functioning effectively. Other emotions let us focus on what needs to be done to get past the anxious situations.

What do you think? Please comment.


Newsletter #429 – From Therapist to Coach

When I learned about David Steele’s new book I was intrigued by a title that promised answers to questions that many of my coaching students bring to class. From Therapist to Coach: How to Leverage Your Clinical Expertise to Build a Thriving Coaching Practice focuses on counselors but it goes further. It deals realistically with the challenges of becoming a coach and includes practical guidelines that apply to any new business startup. Steele gets dull at times (don’t we all?) but overall he writes with energy, passion, humor and a wealth of experience in building a private practice. Among the insightful conclusions:

  • Carefully choose your niche. A niche identifies the individuals or groups with whom you work most effectively and passionately. Your niche sets you apart from others and makes you the preferred “go to” person for a specific group or segment of society. Selecting and building a niche takes time and should build on careful research. Find people who might be in your potential niche. Spend time with them. Find what they need and want. Determine why you are the best provider for your niche. Many coaches fail because they choose poorly or don’t connect with their niche group and the group’s real needs.
  • Don’t assume that marketing is enough. The author includes helpful marketing principles, starting with the “three primary forms of marketing:” public speaking, writing, and networking. But marketing only attracts potential buyers of your services. Equally important is converting prospects to clients or buyers. Marketing does little if you don’t enroll interested people into signing on for your services.
  • Get coach training. Steele is a trained therapist who built a successful private practice. Even so, he argues persuasively that experience or training in therapy or any other occupation does not qualify one to be a coach. If you want to be a competent coach, consider reading this argument in support of quality training.

Does this sound too much like turning coaching and other forms of people building into a cold business venture? Maybe so, but few coaches (especially private practice coaches or counselors) become successful if they overlook business principles. Please comment with your perspective.