Expert Helping Requires Intent, Tools, Theories, & Technical Training

Updated: May 1, 2019

Intent is going to impact the immediate mindset and just-prior preparation. Even someone with excellent technique and experience can be less effective if their motivation is lacking. In addition, if the intent is to get a job over with rather than really to help, an expert may not take time to ensure the right tools are sharp and available and that their mind is at peak readiness. Intent also relates to a willingness to learn continually by seeking feedback even after having reached a high degree of expertise. Your gut instinct is probably the best way to assess an expert's intent to help.

Tools are going to make the difference between a scalpel and a flint knife. In a backcountry emergency with no rescue access, you might be grateful for the skill and willingness of a surgeon companion who would use any available tool, but the extra tissue damage of a blunt tool can cause extra pain and more risk of infection. Tools in the context of consulting, coaching, or counseling are important. This is where—just as surgical tools can be mass produced once the most effective ones are standardized—psychological principles and methods can be mass taught to a lecture hall of a mass of students or thru written materials. It's fair to ask what tools are used when considering getting help.

Technical training is about learning to use the tools with expert precision and choosing theories that have the most effective application to the particular situation. This part hasn’t yet been mass produced as a human capacity. It can be developed thru trial and error, but the potentially disappointing consequences of on-the-job learning can be lessened if there are realistic simulations available. Training takes more than knowledge input; skill is developed with both practice and feedback. Thus oversight and guidance of experts helps tremendously. Among practitioners having equal intent and access to the same tools, natural aptitude for a task will take some to the lead, and fortunately those can be examples for all.

Theories, even when imperfect, give a useful framework for conceptualizing the needs of a person in a particular situation. Theories guide the practice. It's fair to ask what theories and theoretical frameworks are typically used by someone you're considering working with. If you want some examples, read on.


Intent is not enuf. There are times we think that our intent is all that’s needed to help someone. I have a family member who feels deeply invested in helping the family. One way this intent is expressed is that when a family member is engaging in a practice or making a choice she feels is wrong, she will write pages of lecture and explanation to persuade them, even genuinely offering to pay for some solution she has come up with. If this fails, she will sometimes yell at and berate them if physically near. It’s clear that the intent is to help, but she hasn’t learned to select useful tools and isn’t practiced to use them expertly. Because she doesn’t have the insight that she’s lacking tools and techniques, her intent often has no good effect. Few are now willing to accept her help.

Tools are not enuf. There are times we think that our intent plus our favorite tool is all that’s needed to help someone. As a young adult I for a brief time met the criteria for anorexia. During that time my mother brought several of us children with her to a counseling session. This counselor had helped my grandmother and mother, but he wasn’t trained or competent to help someone in my situation. Not realizing this, he talked my mother into a plan for me to be in a mental hospital for three weeks. A far better plan would have been to refer me to an eating disorder outpatient therapist, because my condition wasn’t severe enough to need inpatient treatment. Further, the therapy allowance that insurance would cover (which unfortunately no one had previously told me was available), was all used up by those useless inpatient weeks.

Technical expertise is not ensured by years in practice. I learned later that in the prior-mentioned situation, my mother’s therapist had insisted to the administrators that he be my therapist at the mental hospital. I remember nothing he said except that he figured I’d live in that small town all my life. That seemed fairly irrelevant and also seemed to be stated as an insult. All he did was take me out for ice cream. That was the first and only time I crossed over to bulimic behavior. It wasn’t the appropriate therapeutic technique for an anorexic mindset, and he wasn’t self-aware or humble enough to admit he didn’t have the needed skill set. He had access to “tools” (scripts, worksheets, therapeutic settings), but he misapplied them.

Theories are important, but must fit the situation. There is no theoretical framework in which pressuring an anorexic to eat ice cream is a good idea. Anorexia is not a phobia that benefits from desensitization. He had an unfounded confidence in his intuition. It was a physician who most helped by explaining to me that I could do lasting physical damage to myself by malnutrition. This was based on a straightforward theory that I needed more physiological knowledge. That’s not going to work for every anorexic, but it was a better place to start. I decided to maintain a healthier weight even though I didn’t like it. I found different ways to cope with my psychological issues. #therapist #coach #counselor #consultant