People coming to us for advice is a normal part of life. They might be asking questions, wanting solutions or guidance on how to sort something out. Have you ever thought about the ways you can respond?

One thing is for sure – there is not a ‘one size fits all’ way of responding to them. We all have our own favourite strategies we’ve learnt over the years, possibly picked up from watching others or learning from training. Some of the time our usual methods work, some of the time they let us down; we find ourselves going round in circles or banging our head against an unresponsive wall.

 When we are not getting the outcome we want, it may well occur to us to look for a different approach.  What concerns me is that even when we think we got it right, there popeyemay have been even better results if we had taken another tack. I’d love to conduct an experiment where the same problem is presented to a range of coaches, mentors and advisers and compare how differently the conversations develop. It’s too easy to get stuck in a rut of ‘our’ way of doing things, to launch automatic pilot whoever it is, or whatever the issue is in front of us. Here are some examples of automatic pilot I’ve seen:

  •  The adviser who conducts a SWOT analysis with every client.
  • The coach who goes into giving  advice mode at every  opportunity outside of coaching sessions.
  • The manager (yes, this is true!) who locks his office door and turns the radio up loud so he can’t hear when his team want help.
  • The lecturer who is compelled to inform, always giving you more facts than you want.

It’s interesting, isn’t it? Besides the manager who does not deserve the job title, the others dumpare just trying to use the skills they have. I do understand the drivers here; there have been times when I want to ‘dump’ everything I know about a topic, to be sure that the other person is getting the best from me…but of course, they’re not. To be the best possible help I can, I need to flex my methods in many ways, taking all sorts of factors into account, such as their current level on knowledge, their reasons for asking, their emotional state, my relationship to them. The list is pretty long.

 To serve someone well, we need to see every interaction as unique. Let me tell you about a theory I learnt years ago, which I’ve always found really helpful when working one to one. It’s quite an academic text, so I thought it would be helpful to introduce it in a user friendly way. In a nutshell, it gives you six different ways of responding to another person. It’s a great tool to use during a conversation – if you find yourself stuck, you can run through the options in your head to see if  there is a different approach you can try. In addition, it’s also a great tool for evaluating your own practice. You can reflect on which of the six you used, and think about how the discussion may have gone if you had used the others. it will help you identify your natural ‘knee jerk’ reaction and can extend your repertoire of approaches

It’s called Six Category Intervention Analysis,  by John Heron, a humanistic psychologist. Heron refers to the categories as intentions, which in itself is food for thought – how many different intentions might we have when someone approaches us for help?

I’ll give you a quick run through the six categories, but of course I will be doing the theory  a disservice by treating it so lightly. There are references at the end if you would like to dig deeper.

The six categories are broken down into two groups of three. The first three are called Authoritative – these are where you take the lead  in deciding what Topi (The Other Person Involved) needs to hear. The second three are called facilitative – they are more about helping Topi find his or her own way forward.



Seeks to direct the behaviour of Topi.


Seeks to impart knowledge, information, meaning to Topi.


Seeks to raise the client’s consciousness about some limiting attitude or behaviour of which they are relatively unaware.



Seeks to enable the client to discharge painful emotion, such as grief, fear or anger


Seeks to elicit self discovery, self-directed living, learning and problem solving in the client


Seeks to affirm the worth and value of the client’s person, qualities, attitudes or actions

You will see immediately that some of these intentions just aren’t your bag. If, for thinkingexample, your job is to coach someone on using social media more effectively, it is not likely that you will find yourself wanting to help Topi discharge painful emotion. Not only is it improbable that this would arise, it is also  a strong possibility that you don’t have the necessary skills and experience to do this safely and effectively. Knowing our own boundaries is important when it comes to dealing with others.

Would you say your natural inclination is to take an authoritative approach, or a facilitative one?  Do you consciously switch between them? Does your job role encourage one more than the other?

Let’s explore the six categories a little more.

 1. Prescriptive

Idoctorf it helps, think of a good old fashioned doctor giving you a prescription: “Take a pill twice a day for a week”. When we are being prescriptive, we are telling another person what to do. This implies we have greater knowledge or wisdom than Topi does. Another example would be a Health and Safety Consultant telling you what to do to comply with the law.

There is a range of behaviour you can use, from what Heron calls a ‘Commanding  prescription’ where you completely direct the discussion, through to more consultative approaches where you ask Topi what his views are, and negotiate the best way forward. For example, the vet recently asked if I was able to get my cat to take pills, or if I would prefer him to have injections. the vet was still being prescriptive, telling me my cat needed medication, but she also consulted me on the best way of achieving this.

2. Informative

informationHeron looks at three ways we can be informative. The first is personal interpretation, which is where you give a meaning to Topi’s behaviour, experience or situation. You might comment on how you perceive Topi’s emotions or motives, based on conclusions you have drawn yourself, or theories you are familiar with.

The second way is to give relevant information such as factual, technical or theoretical knowledge, perhaps to give more background to Topi  so that he can understand his current situation better. When I worked for a careers service, would – be actors were always made aware that statistically they were likely to be unemployed 80% of the time. Information can be critical when there are choices to be made.

The final type of informing is giving feedback, which seems to be written about more than the others.  When we comment on how someone has performed, whether it is how they have done their job, homework, or an exercise in a training session, we are giving them feedback.

3. Confronting

ConfrontationConfrontation is not only difficult to do effectively, but in my experience, people shy away from even trying, as they see it as aggressive. In many occupations, though – for example youth work, counselling, even line management, it is an important skill to have.  Heron identifies several types of confronting. The first may well not be new territory to you, even if its name is not, as many models of performance management are built on similar principles. Heron calls it ‘Raising consciousness about a confrontation agenda’ – so basically, making Topi aware of an issue you want to confront him about. It is much more manageable if you have a framework to follow.

Heron suggests these steps:

Identify the agenda – say what the issue is that you want to raise

  • Explain how you see Topi falling foul of the agenda, which will involve giving feedback
  • If relevant, say why you are choosing to raise it now
  • Give Topi space to react to what you have said. Don’t jump in. “Hold your ground and be ready for anything: you may need to be supportive, cathartic, catalytic, informative or yet again confronting – in any order –  to help the person come to terms  with the confrontation, both in their feelings and their understanding”
  • Follow through by helping Topi to identify the source of the problem and a better way of being.

Other forms of confronting include giving negative feedback, asking a direct question aimed at what you think Topi is concealing, challenging inconsistencies or dubious assumptions, correcting incorrect factual statements, or disagreeing with Topi’s opinions.

4. Cathartic

carthaticI’m going to pass on describing this one! Cathartic interventions are a specialist field that most of us – me included – are not equipped to do. Unless you are a trained counsellor, psychotherapist or similar, you won’t be trying this. (Heron lists no less than 24 approaches to a carthartic intervention, making it too weighty to précis here, even if it was appropriate).

Of course, sometimes we find ourselves in the situation where painful emotions such as grief or anger are expressed; we inadvertently trigger them, often because we do not have full knowledge or understanding of Topi’s situation or feelings. If this happens, your options are to choose another approach, such as being supportive, or to bow out and refer Topi to someone who has the skills to help him. Often, once the storm has passed, it is possible to pick up the conversation and move forward.

 5. Catalytic

catalytic As a trainer and coach, this has to be my favourite category.  Encouraging self-directed learning and problem solving are very much my ‘stock-in-trade’. Again, Heron cites too many approaches to run through them all (proving that it’s much easier to tell Topi what to do than to work out how to help him!) but there are some you may that are worth sharing. If you would like to read more about this area, do check outThe One to One Toolkit: Tips and Strategies for Advisers, Coaches and Mentors”

Heron talks about making a life-style map, so that you and Topi together can look at different aspects of his life; where he is satisfied or dissatisfied, what he wants to change. There are many variants of this around, the ‘Wheel of Life’ exercise being one of the most popular. Here, you ask Topi to divide a circle up into areas of life important to him. Typically he will choose work, family, hobbies, helping others etc. You then ask him to score his satisfaction, on a scale of one to ten,  with each area. One is the centre of the circle, with concentric rings working out to ten at the outside. By shading the scored areas, you create a ‘bumpy wheel’  which shows imbalances. This is a great visual that can be used to focus a discussion, and can be repeated over time to mark progress.

Heron also includes many communication skills in this category – open questions, checking understanding, echoing back, giving full attention, picking up non verbal clues all have their part to play.

6. Supportive

SupportingHeron rightly points out that being supportive is not necessarily only or best displayed by the words we choose. Doing and giving things, physical contact, welcoming body language, showing pleasure in Topi’s presence all have an important role in showing care and concern.

Affirming and celebrating Topi’s worth – his qualities, attitudes and action – show that you value him. Sometimes even acknowledging the importance to Topi of his history or possessions is a way of showing support. (Heron calls it ‘artefacts’ I call it ‘stuff’). Encouraging Topi to value himself and see his fine merits and recognise his skills is also important.

 How to get it spectacularly wrong

There is one last thing to mention. I’ve written this assuming you are a well intentioned good sort. You probably are. While reflecting on how you handle others, do hold up a mirror and check for what Heron calls “Degenerate and perverted Intentions”. He say there are four ways of getting it wrong, so make sure that none of them apply to you. I think they are self explanatory. They are interventions that are:

  •  Unsolicited
  • Manipulative
  • Compulsive
  • Unskilled

There you have it!

I hope this quick jaunt through Six Category Intervention Analysis has given you food for thought. I hope you recognise your own strengths, your own preferred behaviour and can see where you could possibly adapt to get a better result when dealing with Topi. You might even have noticed some areas where you would like to grow your skills.

Helping the client: A creative guide by John Heron, 5th Ed 2001 published by Sage Publications Ltd ISBN 978-0761972891

By Julie Cooper

Author of Face to Face in the Workplace

“If you deal with people you need this book” Buy your copy  here


By | 2020-03-09T16:51:11+01:00 May 8th, 2014|People Tips|0 Comments

About the Author:

I am trainer, coach and author specialising in one to one skills.

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