Heron’s Six Categories of Intervention

Understanding How to Help People More Effectively

Not all interventions are supportive.

© iStockphoto/evemilla

At work, in whatever role or industry, most people deal daily with others who need their help, support, advice or expertise. Precisely how they deliver that "help" determines its success and also has an impact on the relationship they build with the person they are helping.

John Heron's framework provides a model for analyzing how you deliver help. His model identifies six primary categories or styles of helping intervention.

Based on studies in counseling, his categories became widely used to study and train health and education professionals. However, more recently, business professionals – managers, supervisors, coaches, consultants, sales people – have used the model to learn and improve how they interact when helping their employees, team members, clients, and customers.

This article helps you understand Heron's model, so that you can use it to improve your business and management communication skills and so improve the outcome of the help you offer.

Understanding the Model

Heron's model has two basic categories or styles – "authoritative" and "facilitative." Those two categories further break down into a total of six categories to describe how people intervene when helping.

Tip:

There are some technical words used to describe the categories. Don't be put off by them – they are necessary to describe this model and we define them fully below.

If a helping intervention is "authoritative," it means that the person "helping" (often a manager or supervisor) is giving information, challenging the other person, or suggesting what the other person should do.

If a helping intervention is "facilitative," it means that the person "helping" is drawing out ideas, solutions, self-confidence, and so on, from the other person, helping him or her to reach his or her own solutions or decisions.

  • Authoritative
    • Prescriptive
    • Informative
    • Confronting
  • Facilitative
    • Cathartic
    • Catalytic
    • Supportive

Authoritative Interventions

These are:

  • Prescriptive – You explicitly direct the person you are helping by giving advice and direction.
  • Informative – You provide information to instruct and guide the other person.
  • Confronting – You challenge the other person's behavior or attitude. Not to be confused with aggressive confrontation, "confronting" is positive and constructive. It helps the other person consider behavior and attitudes of which they would otherwise be unaware.

Facilitative Interventions

These are:

  • Cathartic – You help the other person to express and overcome thoughts or emotions that they have not previously confronted.
  • Catalytic – You help the other person reflect, discover and learn for him or herself. This helps him or her become more self-directed in making decisions, solving problems and so on.
  • Supportive – You build up the confidence of the other person by focusing on their competences, qualities and achievements.

How to Use the Model

You can use the model to look at the way you communicate in different "help" settings at work. If you habitually one or two styles, the model will help you learn and use more of the styles, and so improve your impact and the outcome of the help you give. Use figure 1 below to analyze the styles you use in given work settings.

If you are helping someone to solve a specific problem or issue, use the model to plan your intervention so that you help your team member or client in the best possible way. Use figure 1 to select appropriate styles and plan what to say and ask the other person.

Tip:

A great way to understand your helping styles is to ask your colleagues and team members directly for feedback.

The examples below show how, by changing or varying the style of help offered, you can achieve a better outcome.

Example 1: Production line supervisor Bob is naturally "prescriptive" with his supervisees. He has found that some team members are bringing more and more problems to him. He realizes that his natural communication style may be partly to blame.

Using Heron's categories as a framework, he concludes that a more "supportive" style may help the team members gain confidence and so solve more of the problems for themselves. He schedules a meeting and plans what he will say and questions he will ask to be more "supportive", using the example "what to say or ask" below.

Example 2: HR consultant John has a long-term business client who is the HR director of a large national organization. He meets with his client monthly and helps her as a "sounding board" for strategic planning and decision-making. John is usually "facilitative" and uses a "catalytic" style of helping his client.

However, he currently is concerned that his client, in one policy-related area, may be making uninformed decisions. He provides some information and tries to help his client understand the issue ("informative" help), in the hope she will change her plans. She fails to act on the new information. Frustrated, and with the Heron model in mind, John concludes that a "confronting" style is now appropriate to achieve a better outcome for his client, and help her avoid making a big mistake. He sets up another meeting with her, and prepares what to say and ask, to "confront" the issues.

Figure 1: Heron Model: What to Say and Ask

The following table helps you analyze or plan your communication skills for helping by indicating what you say and what you ask when using each one of the six categories of the Heron model.

Authoritative Prescriptive
  • Give advice and guidance
  • Tell the other person how they should behave
  • Tell them what to do
Informative
  • Give your view and experience
  • Explain the background and principles
  • Help the other person get a better understanding
Confronting
  • Challenge the other person’s thinking
  • Play back exactly what the person has said or done
  • Tell them what you think is holding them back
  • Help them avoid making the same mistake again
Facilitative Cathartic
  • Help the other person express their feelings or fears
  • Empathize with them
Catalytic
  • Ask questions to encourage fresh thinking
  • Encourage the other person to generate new options and solutions
  • Listen and summarize, and listen some more
Supportive
  • Tell the other person you value them (their contribution, good intention or achievements)
  • Praise them
  • Show them they have your support and commitment

Key Points

Heron's Six Categories of Intervention can be used as a framework to help you understand and improve your business communication skills.

Whether you are helping a team member, employee, client or customer, the model can help you develop greater awareness of your own "helping" style and its impact, and can help you adapt the way you help to improve the outcome and your "helping" relationships.

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Comments (3)
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Zuni,
    Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts. You are so right when you said: As adults we are more committed to learn when we come to our own conclusions as to what needs to change.
    When we've come up with the answers ourselves, we are more likely to take action. Even when it is a suggestion from someone else, this is never as powerful as when we come up with the idea ourselves!

    This is the whole idea with coaching ... guiding an individual to finding out the answers themselves!

    Midgie
  • zuni wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all,

    In my role in talent management I am often called upon to to act as a mentor or a development coach. Heron's intervention categories is an excellent framework to use in determining the approach you will take in eaxh mentoring or development coaching encounter.

    Midgie mentions the importance of assessing the capability and motivation level of your mentee and using this assessment to choose your intervention approach. In most develomental relationships I lean towards using the facilitative approach, particualrly in situations where I have a person who is self aware and highly motivated to learn or who are committed to changing their behaviour. Using guided self discovery questions to shape the dialoge is by far the most effective tool in my toolkit. As adults we are more committed to learn when we come to our own conclusions as to what needs to change. How many of you like to be "told" what to do?

    Where you have "blocked learners" sometimes the only recourse you have is to use an authoritative approach, particularly when the consequences for not changing are high.

    Zuni
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    The style you decide to you really depends on the situation and the people, yet it is an excellent place to start when looking at your own communication style and improving team effectiveness and efficiencies.

    For example, a new and inexperienced employee might require a prescriptive or informative approach to tell them how to do a particular task or share with them how you'd do the task. Whereas using that same approach with a more experience employee would probably not go down well!

    Great model to hold up as a mirror to see your own communication style! So, what is your preferred style and does it work well with everyone you come into contact with?

    Midgie

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