“Love = Seeing plus distance minus judgement”.

Bert Hellinger

These ‘orders’ were first described by Bert Hellinger in the context of family constellations, but in an organisational context they can also be used to inform the roles of coaching, consulting and other kinds of change agency. Although change agents are also using other processes in their roles – such as learning and innovating – what he calls ‘helping’ also fundamentally underpins their work.

These words are an abridged summary of a 2003 paper, and speech that Hellinger gave at a workshop in London. I have added some quotes and brief examples that show their relevance to organisational work (in italics).

What is Helping?

  • Helping is a demanding art, it is a skill to be learned and practiced.
  • Helping requires insight into what is genuinely appropriate.
  • Helping is also something mysterious that draws on the greater field Helping is not a straightforward process. Viewed systemically, a great deal of help (e.g. therapy/consulting/foreign aid) can be wasted, either because of what the helper does or does not bring, or because the systemic conditions that underpin the relationship have not been considered deeply enough. In particular, without careful thought, helping can actually weaken people and establish dependence. At the beginning the relationship may seem gratifying, but unless it is also capable of being frustrating, those being helped are not spurred into finding their place as people who can feel their strength and are able to give. So helpers have to guard against their own inevitable narcissism. The Orders of Helping are a guide for change agents of all kinds to work out what is appropriate, possible, strengthening and enduring. They always need to hold a bigger framework and a sense of what is developmentally appropriate. There are 2 key principles to hold constantly in mind when in a coaching or consulting relationship.

Helping as Exchange

“Every act of helping should make me happy” Bert Hellinger

Because helping involves an exchange, the issue of balance between helper and helped always needs attention. Helping must also be good for the helper; helping between adult equals has to be mutual at some level so that there is a balance of give and take.

(This is obviously different to helping between parents and children – the “archetype of helping” – where parents give and children take. The balancing out in this relationship comes through children honouring and fully “taking” the gift of life, so we can pass on what we have received).

Helping presupposes that we have first received and taken for ourselves what we need, as only then can we have the strength to ‘pass it on’ and help others, especially when much is demanded of us.

Helping also presupposes that those who we wish to help actually want and need what we are able to give. Otherwise our attempts to help will separate us rather than connect us.

Note: One of Bert’s aphorisms was that “every act of helping should make me happy” (to which Judith Hemming added, “and if not, be well paid”). Giving out too much when our own needs have not been met does not have a good effect, and often results in burn-out. This is a particular danger for “helpers”, of course, many of whom are drawn to becoming coaches or therapists through roles we took on in our family system, our primary pattern generator.

Often ‘balance’ is managed by finding the right payment, but the fullness of exchange in all its richness needs to be considered (for instance, the opportunity to learn or raise one’s profile).

“Essential Help”: Doing the Least

As helpers it is necessary to work in a way that is in tune with the soul and wider field, not ‘what I am for or against’ but ‘what the heart of this situation requires to restore movement’. This means leaving behind our intentions, fears and distinctions (including what we think ought and must happen).

Helping is always about doing the least needed, and it is not looking for completion but only for a restoration and support of movement. It keeps to what is essential, reveals the next step, withdraws quickly – it is help ‘in passing’ so to speak. Helping involves placing a high level of trust in the client to manage what they are given.

This way of working depends on us being seen as a helpful, transitory friend, perhaps wise – but neutral and detached enough to see and to report on what we see hidden in the field, and therefore be genuinely trustworthy.

Note: Systemic work aims to attune to the flow of our true potential, or ‘what wants to happen’ (as Theory U puts it). This means as coaches that that we work without attachment as to achieving a particular outcome. Bert Hellinger said that when “we can align with the truth of what is, we hold the authority needed to lead systemic work”. (To clarify a frequent confusion, it doesn’t mean that we are entirely without intention, as we intend to be present, and explore the reality of the situation and the client’s potential and desired outcomes).

Below are the 5 orders of helping – which amplify the principles – briefly described.

The First Order: Helping has definite limits

We only give what we have, and only expect what we need.

Disorder: Sometimes we try to give what we don’t have, or someone demands something that we can’t really give. Or we try to take something on for another person or organisation that they must carry for themselves.

Note: an example of this first order in the organisational realm would be refraining from getting pulled in to constellate the client’s family system, or trauma in their organisational system, when we’ve received little or inadequate training to do so.

The Second Order of Helping; Respecting Circumstances

The second order of helping requires that circumstances be respected and interventions only go as far as they permit. These might be outer circumstances e.g. events – which may be unchangeable – or inner ones such as entanglements in the fate of others. These circumstances need to be faced side by side, between helper and helped before action can be usefully taken.

Disorder: Denying the circumstances – many helpers wish to change, fix or alleviate a situation not because the person concerned has asked for this but because the helper cannot stand the situation (or feel they have only been useful if they can make things ‘better’)

Note: examples of circumstances in a coaching or organisational context that may need to be respected could include:

  • those relating to the coaching contract, such as the limited number of coaching sessions that are available, or the limited permission or scope to look at certain issues.
  • the environment in which the coaching is going to happen (for instance in a noisy room or one with glass partitions, or working via Zoom) or changes in the market or wider ecosystem like Brexit or COVID-19.
  • inner circumstances might include the client’s trauma or their fundamental lack of motivation for being coached.

The Third Order: Sidestepping Transference

Helping tends to elicit the powerful transference or paradigm of parent and child. The Third Order of Helping is that helpers relate to their grown-up clients as adults and thereby turn aside any expectations about seeking a substitute for the parent role. A relationship based on the ‘parent/child model’, or intentionally accentuating transference, hinders the development of the helped and helper.

There are situations however when it is appropriate to stand in for the parents for a short time. (For instance, in family work when an early interrupted movement has to be completed). But, the helper in this case represents the real parents.

Disorder: When the client adult is treated like a child and responsibility for things that he or she needs to shoulder or face alone, are taken on by the helper.

Note: Although a challenging read for psychodynamic psychotherapists, this principle also has relevance for many coaches and management consultants. Regardless of our views and allegiances to different ways of working, constellations frequently show that the client is weakened if we step too closely into their system or even take on the client’s work.

This is frequently seen in supervision constellations. If we are too close to the system, we are more likely to be ‘captured’ by it and caught up in ‘parallel process’ and the unhelpful dynamics of the client system. We might also take on the work of the client. In one example, a management consultant acknowledged the accuracy of a supervisory map, and that he had “inappropriately joined” the executive team of his corporate client to work on a lucrative project. This was causing resentment, indeed intense irritation, among some members of the executive team.

The Fourth Order: Being on Everyone’s’ Side

It is important to see the client not as an isolated individual but as part of a system, and indeed to have a greater sympathy for the system as a whole (and everyone in it). A helper needs to look at who in the system needs to be seen and acknowledged, particularly those who have been excluded, and who hold the key for the solution.

Disorder: When the people essential to the system, particularly those who have been excluded, are overlooked, out of sympathy to the client.

Note: One of Hellinger’s most important contributions was to see that what the system most overlooks or excludes – whether people (the founder or key stakeholders) or intangibles (such as the organisation’s founding purpose or even heart) – typically provides the most important key to the solution, or restoring movement and flow. This is often seen graphically in supervision constellations, where the coach or consultant literally stands by what has been excluded from the system; this has a remarkable capacity to create an energetic shift and begin to bring a stuck system back to life.

The Fifth Order: Beyond Judgement

The fifth order of helping is respecting each person as they are no matter how different they may be from me as a helper. Constellations (and systemic work) join what has been separated. They support reconciliation. True helping is done without judgment.

Disorder: Joining the client in judging others and taking on the superior moral stance that this position presupposes. Distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ hinders reconciliation.

Note: as an example of the ‘disorder’, if a client complains about someone [CEO/line manager/peers], and is confirmed in his or her belief by a coach who sides with their judgement or accusation, this will lead to greater separation and disconnection rather than reconciliation and freedom.

Concluding Note: Perception and Presence

The orders of helping set out here must not be doggedly applied in a rigid way. That would involve thinking but not perception. Acting according to these orders requires special perception. This special perception arises out of collectedness and presence. In that place, the coach leaves behind the level of experience that entails intentions, fears and distinctions (including their judgments and super ego, what it desires, what it thinks it ought and must happen).

This enables opening oneself up to the situation as a whole and from that place feeling what is essential. In a final section, Bert Hellinger compares helping and ‘opening oneself’ in this way to being a representative in a Movement of the Soul (a form of self-organising constellation used in personal work):

“If you have ever given yourself over to the Movements of the Soul as a representative in a constellation and have experienced how surprising and irresistible they are, then you will know what I am talking about. Your awareness extends beyond any ordinary ideas you have had, opening up your sensitivity to precise movements and gestures, inner images and sensations. Simultaneously you are guided from without and within. Perception and action become one.”

Note: although Hellinger is obviously describing a fairly advanced state of flow, the importance of our presence and inner capacities in supporting change are now amply evidenced (for instance, see Deborah Rowland’s Still Moving (2017).

Of course, these principles as a whole typically challenge our personalities, and inner critic in particular. However, nobody is the finished article; the more we can work with them and develop them, the more in turn our presence – and overall stance – will be strengthened.

Translated by Jutta ten Herkel from an article (May 2003) by Bert Hellinger