Developing the relationship
In an earlier article (See here) I wrote of beginning relationships and of some things to keep in mind when starting a helping relationship. Now I would like to explore the idea of developing relationships, sort of the next step or stage in building a working relationship.
When we think of the meaning of the word ‘develop’, many things may come to mind ... concepts like unfolding gradually and in detail, to bring out possibilities, to make more available or usable, to go through a natural process of growth and differentiation, to evolve, become apparent. All these have great meaning in a therapeutic relationship and should be kept in mind. When I am in the process of developing a helping relationship with a family or youth, I reflect back on these very concepts whenever I interact with them. I sometimes do this in the moment when we are involved, or afterwards, in order to see if I accomplished what I had hoped to. Staying aware of the purpose of the relationship helps to keep it on track.
When I think of the concepts mentioned above it is obvious that acceptance must come into play in order for these to be realised. I have to accept the person I am working with and they have to reciprocate the acceptance in order to value my contribution.
So, for example, when dealing with situations or information that conflict with what I think or have been told by others involved, I try very hard not to give the impression that I don’t believe them. When this situation arises I question them rather than just confront them about the distortions. This can be as simple as “I don’t quite understand, could you tell me more and give me a better understanding?” If this leads to them reinforcing the distortions, then I stick with the questioning rather than go right to statements like “that’s not what I was told.” This is a time to explore their experience of the situation; to get an understanding of what it all means for them. Explaining what you are doing can help the person be patient: going over the same thing more than once, because now you are developing the connection in the relationship, leaves them feeling you are trying to understand and help. I always try to understand where the person is coming from, otherwise how can I develop the relationship. Accepting a person for who they are, and letting them know that you do, can be a big step forward in the development of the connection that is needed to make a relationship work.
This is a time when I usually tell them “you are making life work for you the best way you can right now. What do you think of getting better at making it work?” I spend some time explaining that I don’t look at people or situations as wrong, more looking at how effective they are. Explaining how something can be effective, less effective or more effective, usually gives a person a sense that I am not disapproving or trying to change who they are, just helping them become more effective in situations life brings their way. In taking the idea of effectiveness as part of the theme of developing a relationship it is important to look at self, this person you bring into the relationship.
Take a good look at who you are, what you believe in, how you express what you believe and how you act out our values. Don’t think for a minute that you can (in the words of the youth we work) with “act like you are all that” and get away with it. Being real in who you are is the only way people will take you seriously. While this is important it does not mean you take a “listen to me” tone and expect to be heard. Most of the people we work with have been hearing “you are wrong” most of their lives ... they won’t let you in if you are like that. Discuss, even defend your values and beliefs with the people you work with, just don’t “preach them” or expect them to be acknowledged as right. If we are expecting those we work with to change or at least modify their ideas and behaviours, the least we can do is bend and stretch a bit with how we put ourselves out there. Let them get to know who you are and what you stand for but don’t try and force them to think you are right all the time. Admit when you were less effective than you could have been, let them know you are human also and show it with respect, not grudgingly.
It is very important to be aware of this idea of taking “self” into the helping relationship. We can make or break a relationship by how we do this. Disclosing is a thing we are constantly told to watch out for in our profession. It is almost impossible to avoid this in some manner or another, but it is also a great tool if used correctly. We will be asking people to let us into their world, their mind: how they think and act will be out there for us to examine. A relationship is a two-way partnership, so shouldn’t they be able to know us also? By no means am I saying open up your whole life to them. But be willing to let them get to know you, share yourself when it can bring meaning to a topic. But be careful not to make your story more important than theirs or to make it a sharing of “war stories.” Let them know enough about you to show you are able to appreciate some of the difficulties life deals us all. Sharing some of your struggles can let someone know you didn’t get all your knowledge out of books ... you have lived in this world to.
Just imagine what it must be like to listen to someone you think has it all together tell you that you can handle whatever is messing up your life. “Easier said than done,” is a phrase that comes to my mind in that situation. What better way is there to have someone tone you out than come across like that.
I had this experience with a young lad I had started working with some time ago. I had met him on several occasions in the past ... respite stays at our facility or in the community, and always thought “wow what a handful, he is.” Working with him for a few weeks confirmed my first impression: he was a handful. I had a new appreciation as to why his family were at their wits’ end with him, why the school was looking for help and why he had so many different respite placements. He is loud, excitable, in your space with no concept of boundaries – the list goes on and, sad to say, I was getting caught up in his “presentation of self”. I was reacting to him the same way I saw his family doing. I was trying to control him. He has been connected with the care system most of his life so he has had many people come and go throughout the years. He reacts positively to praise and a sense of accomplishment and acceptance. So he did well with behaviour modification approaches. He was so tuned in to the approach that he would coach me on when, where, and why he needed snacks and drinks on long drives. It was almost funny. I couldn’t laugh, though, because I felt as his family did – like he was controlling me. So being the youth worker that I am, did the whole ‘analyze the situation’ thing ... hmmm he is so used to getting rewards for what he does, that he only focuses on the rewards not what he is doing. Well I did all the usual discussion around why he thought he should get a treat just because he was appropriate in the car. Even went as far as negotiating what the treat was so that I had control.
Then I realized this was just another game that was getting in the way of the relationship. I was just another person getting in the way of him meeting his needs. (How is that for being less effective?) There were times we did connect, times when we just got lost in the activity of the moment, usually at the park when he was allowed to just play and be himself; times when he felt comfortable with who he was and what he was doing. These times had to be few and far between for him; he is a big 15-year-old who loves to play in a childlike manner with little cars, swings and simple things of that like. Having the situation in life that he had, he likely didn’t get to be a carefree child for long, so he was still trying for it. This along with the fact that he was dealing with all the issues that surface at that age in everyone, gave me a new insight into what he was dealing with. If we all found him a handful how must he find himself? Being a firm believer in the relationship approach and the power that connection has, I knew I had to connect with him in a manner that he found meaningful, beyond rewards. This was somewhat straight forward and almost simplistic to realize ... but how to bring it about?
At this point our time together had ended up being drives back and forth to a facility that was two hours away. So twice a week we were faced with this dilemma. Knowing this I decided to try and lighten up about what was appropriate car behaviour – jumping around and fiddling with everything wasn’t, being engaged in the trip was. Being engaged with him in a way that let him feel comfortable meant accepting a certain amount of noise and silliness. With this in mind I picked him up at home, letting his Mom know I would talk to her on the way back. This avoided any tales of behaviour over the weekend that would result in him feeling defensive. After 45 minutes of driving and listening to Donald Duck impersonations, we approached the half-way point of the trip, so before he got the thought I suggested stopping for hot chocolate. Needless to say he was all for it, once in the cafe he talked of how good all the cookies and things looked. After a minute he asked if he could have something else besides a drink and to my surprise he offered to share a large chocolate muffin. Sharing this was something new for him, so we got it. Once back in the car I divided the muffin and started to pass him the bigger half at the same time he reached for it. He was surprised this time, he said he didn’t expect me to give him the big piece, we just laughed and didn’t analyze it any further. Heading down the road again we enjoyed our hot chocolate and I noticed he was rather quiet, then all of a sudden he asked if he could ask me a question. When I said sure he replied “well it’s not really a question, it’s just something I want to tell you.” He went on to talk about how people say he is annoying, even miserable and insane. I asked him why people would say that and he replied “because of how I act, but that’s just me”. I was going to reply with the careful response of “that must be hard to hear” instead of the one we sometimes don’t catch ourselves saying “I know how you feel”. I thought for a minute, this is a good time to share and so I waited for a second and just before he confronted me on not being able to know how this would feel I asked him if I could tell him something. He said okay and I told him about how when I was young I fractured my skull and had to learn to talk all over again – that it took me a long time to say things because what I was thinking didn’t always come out when I spoke. This and the fact that I had an accent because I came from a different country than here and changed schools a lot when I first moved here, caused people to pick on me too. He thought about this for a bit then quietly said “you were kinda like me, eh.” I just replied with “yeah, kinda”.
The rest of the drive was rather uneventful, he stopped doing Donald Duck voices, we talked about what we saw and how different the city was from where we came from in the country. Once inside the facility we got him settled in his room and as the worker walked me to the door to let me out, he followed (something he never did before). Once at the door he quietly said good bye and thanks. Not thanks for the hot chocolate or the big half of the muffin, just thanks.
Maybe we’re finally developing a working relationship here.