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The Helper's Dance List 


Helping people is normally helpful but there are some difficult patterns of response which we can be part of despite our best intentions. These patterns can be called dances to capture the whole interpersonal and social interaction summed up by the adage: ‘it takes two to tango’.  If we can notice and map out all the steps to these patterns of response or dances, we have a chance to discuss them and re-negotiate them in a more reflective way.

Each item in the list is a prompt for an open and compassionate conversation. The list is not set in stone. Our aim is to understand the pattern of response with compassion and curiosity. Rate your responses to each item. Along the way, cross out or add words to help each item fit your experience. Not all the items will strike a chord with you. Add notes such as ‘used to be true’ or ‘true when working with or at x’.

Be compassionate and curious about your answers. Go through your responses and discuss how to change the dances by changing your thinking, your behaviour or your expectations of how others will interact with you.  The aim in knowing more about our own other people’s patterns of relating is   summed up as ‘name the dance, don’t blame or shame the dancer’.

 circle  0-3 if applies to me     0 = not at all,1= rarely, 2= sometimes, 3 = often


  1. Never good enough: I have high expectations of myself which makes me think my help won’t be good enough, others will be disappointed, and I will cope by trying even harder.      0..1..2..3..

  2. The blame game: when trying to understand why something went wrong, I expect the finger of blame to be pointed directly at someone and everyone hides from taking some responsibility.  0..1..2..3.. 

  3. Out of my depth: If I get involved, I fear I will get out of my depth, so I back off and keep distant. 0..1..2..3..   

  4. Super sponge: when people are too demanding, I feel put upon but soak up the pressure, and won’t complain through fear of making things worse. 0..1..2..3..     

  5. Genuine and vulnerable or safe but less real: either (a) I show feelings and feel genuine but somewhat vulnerable or (b) I safely hide feelings, appear professional but less the real me.  0..1..2..3..  

  6. Either it’s my way or the wrong way: If I think I am helping in the right way I stick to it stubbornly and find it hard hearing it could be done another way. 0..1..2..3..

  7. Fear of prejudice: If I feel someone is very different to me, I will back off for fear of saying the wrong thing, being embarrassing or judged as prejudiced.  0..1..2..3..

  8. Lose perspective: I can be drawn into the detail of the moment and forget the bigger picture or main purpose.   0..1..2..3..

  9. Let it be and wait and see:   When I am not sure what to do, I let things be and wait and see.   0..1..2..3..

  10. Tell me what to do:  When uncertain about how to help, I rely too much on reassurance and guidance. 0..1.. 2..3..

  11. Switch off: When I am upset by the suffering of those whom I help I cope by switching off.   0..1.. 2..3..  

  12. Who’s who?  If I help too many people in a day, feelings and understanding of one person get mixed up with my feelings and understanding for another.  0..1..2..3..

  13. Jump in or hold back:  either I am in at the deep end as a helper and tend to give my all or I am not so involved, hold back and then miss the moment to help. 0..1..2..3..

  14. My hands are tied:  With a freer hand, I could be more helpful, but I must follow the rules. 0..1.. 2..3..

  15. If I don’t help no one will:  Other people won’t see the need, or have the knowhow to help, so it is left up to me to provide the help that someone needs. 0..1..2..3..

  16. Lack of resources frustrates me:  I know what is needed or how to help but the support or treatment is not available so I feel frustrated, angry or helpless. 0..1.. 2..3..

  17. Looking after others means neglecting myself:  I put so much into looking after others that their needs take over and I forget to look after myself enough and am at risk of stress. 0..1.. 2..3..

  18. Not here, not now:  I see the need to talk about what is happening between us but just now often seems the wrong time so I put it off. 0..1.. 2..3..

To read a background article about the thinking behind this list see The Helpers Dance List on the downloads page

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