The Skilled Helper Approach

The Skilled Helper Approach


The Skilled Helper approach weas originally developed in the mid-1970s by psychologist Gerard Egan, Professor Emeritus of Organization Development and Psychology at the Loyola University of Chicago. The book that describes the approach – entitled The Skilled Helper – has since had many editions.

Sanders (2002, p. 73) writes:

Gerard Egan published the first edition of his popular book The Skilled Helper in 1975. He added to the ideas of Carl Rogers by taking the work of other psychologists and constructing a theory of helping based on the skills required at different stages in the helpful change process.

It was while Egan was teaching clinical psychology that ‘the germs of his skills-centred, problem management approach started to grow’ as he began to think that ‘the problems experienced by people were more to do with external factors, i.e. the social settings they were living in (family, work, culture) rather than internal factors’ (Sanders, 2002, p. 38).

This led Egan to develop the Skilled Helper model, with the aim of helping clients develop their problem-solving abilities and their opportunity-development strategies.

Fit with Different Modalities

Feltham and Dryden (1993, p. 56) write: ‘Egan has called his approach a developmental or systematic eclecticism. It is taught on many counselling courses.’

The extent to which the Skilled Helper approach fits with person-centred counselling is debatable. Egan’s integrative model in fact draws on the work of both Carl Rogers and Robert Carkhuff (co-creator with Charles Truax of the Empathy Scale) – and much person-centred counselling training these days has integrative elements.

Pure person-centred counsellors, however, believe that the core conditions are not only necessary but also sufficient. Sanders categorises Egan (and Arnold Lazarus, with his Multimodal Therapy) as being ‘at the forefront of the development of integrative approaches’ (2002, p. 15). He (2012, p. 245) excludes models that form part of ‘technical eclecticism’ (such as Egan’s approach) from his mapping of person-centred approaches to counselling.

Sanders argues: ‘Although we might recognise the integrity of the effort in the development of these approaches, such approaches are excluded because they violate practically all of the principles of person-centred therapy and share none of the theory of personality or change.’

It is true that Egan’s model is quite directive, and so in some ways could be said to fit better with cognitive behavioural therapy, transactional analysis and motivational interviewing (a technique used by health professionals) than with the person-centred approach. Nonetheless, there are many connections and common features with Carl Rogers’ work.

Link with Positive Psychology

Egan’s work also links with the positive psychology movement, and Egan (2002, p. 6) includes a section on this in his book. He writes: ‘Helping clients identify and develop unused potential and missed opportunities can be called a positive psychology goal’.

While he urges that the term ‘positive psychology’ ‘should not be trivialized’ (2002, p. 7), Egan also notes that it appears frequently in his book. In particular, he uses the terms when referring to:

  • challenging strengths: ‘Successful helpers tend to challenge clients’ strengths rather than their weaknesses … Challenging strengths is a positive--psychology approach. It means pointing out to clients the assets and resources they have but fail to use’ (2002, p. 221)
  • using leverage (helping clients choose issues that will make a difference in their lives): ‘The leverage mind-set is part of positive psychology. It is second nature in effective helpers’ (2002, p. 237).

Three Stages

Egan developed a non-coercive way of helping people reach their own goals, based on stages, each of which contains three steps:

Stage I: ‘What’s going on?’ Helping clients clarify the key issues calling for change (building the helping relationship and exploration)

  • Step I-A: Help clients tell their stories.
  • Step I-B: Help clients break through blind spots that prevent them from seeing themselves, their problem situations, and their unexplored opportunities as they really are.
  • Step I-C: Help clients choose the right problems and/or opportunities to work on.

Stage II: ‘What solutions make sense for me?’ Helping clients determine outcomes (new understanding and offering different perspectives)

  • Step II-A: Help clients use their imaginations to spell out possibilities for a better future.
  • Step II-B: Help clients choose realistic and challenging goals that are real solutions to the key problems and unexplored opportunities identified in Stage I.
  • Step II-C: Help clients find the incentives that will help them commit themselves to their change agendas.

Stage III: ‘What do I have to do to get what I need or want?’ Helping clients develop strategies for accomplishing goals (helping the client to develop and use helping strategies)

  • Step III-A: Possible actions: Help clients see that there are many different ways of achieving goals.
  • Step III-B: Help clients choose best-fit strategies.
  • Step III-C: Help clients craft a plan.

These nine steps ‘all revolve around planning for change, not change itself’. Egan refers to ‘the action arrow’ as a reminder of the importance of making things happen – that is, of ‘results-producing action’ (2002, p. 347).

Counselling Skills Required at Each Stage

Certain counselling skills tend to particularly useful at the various stages of Egan’s approach.

Stage I

The counsellor needs to use silence and active listening to fully hear the story; reflection, paraphrasing and clarification to identify blind spots; and focusing to create leverage.

Feltham and Dryden (1993, p. 104) note that ‘whilst substantial leverage may not be available to the counsellor in the earliest phase of counselling, Egan … views the search for leverage as a crucial aspect of the counselling process’. They see leverage as ‘a position from which it is possible to effect change’ (ibid.).

Egan believed strongly that first impressions are lasting impressions, and so that establishing a sound therapeutic relationship from the start was vital to success.

Egan believed that key to ensuring that the client developed this trust in the counsellor was the appropriate use of ‘nonverbal behaviour’ (2002, p. 67) – that is, body language. He coined the concept of SOLER, an acronym for the aspects of body language that he saw as important (2002, pp. 69–70):

S: Face the client Squarely

O: Adopt an Open posture

L: Remember that it is possible at times to Lean toward the other.

E: Maintain good Eye contact.

R: Try to be relatively Relaxed or natural in these behaviors.

The first stage also draws strongly on Rogers’ core conditions (empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard), which must be communicated clearly to the client.

Stage II

Sanders (2002, pp. 74­–75) notes that all the Stage I skills will be needed throughout the helping process, but that at Stage II additional skills will need to be added.

To link and integrate individual issues into themes, the counsellor needs to be able to show deeper understanding and empathy, and to help the client focus on specific issues. When it comes to challenging the client’s views, the counsellor must offer new perspectives, share their own experiences and feelings, and help the client move on.

In the final step of Stage 2, the client needs support to set goals, identifying what they want to achieve. Questioning is important at this stage, encouraging clients to create objectives that are SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.

Stage III

Again, Stage I and II skills are also needed when working at Stage III, and additional skills must be added. The counsellor must support the client to develop and choose action plans, using brainstorming, creative thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and planning (Sanders, 2002, p. 75).

It is also important that the client is facilitated to evaluate possible consequences of action, perhaps by recording events through keeping a diary, evaluating the results of actions, and reviewing the plans that led to them (ibid.).

Criticisms of the Skilled Helper Approach

Ashencaen Crabtree and Baba (2001) assert that all Western counselling modalities focus on the individual, and their needs and goals. They argue that in some cultures, people see themselves less as an individual and more as a member of the wider community, prioritising its collective needs over their own.

Indeed, Egan himself writes: ‘Inevitably, the helper’s personal culture interacts with the client’s, for better or for worse (2002, p. 45).

Egan’s approach has also been criticised for its assumption that clients can communicate verbally – though it could also be argued that the process Egan describes can be combined with creative approaches, so eliciting the information needed through, for example, artwork.

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The Skilled Helper Approach


Ashencaen Crabtree, S. and Baba, I. (2001) Islamic perspectives in social work education: Implications for teaching and practice. Social Work Education, 20, 4, 469–481.

Egan, G. (2002). The Skilled Helper: A Problem-Management and Opportunity-Development Approach to Helping. Pacific Grove, California: Brooks/Cole.

Feltham, C. and Dryden, W. (1993). Dictionary of Counselling. London: Whurr.

Sanders, P. (2002). First Steps in Counselling: A students’ companion for basic introductory courses. 3rd ed. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.

Sanders, P. ed. (2012). The Tribes of the Person-Centred Nation. 2nd ed. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.


Resource created: 1 March 2022

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