Thursday, May 30, 2013

Listening Always Comes First

So there's a great little video called It's Not About the Nail out in the electronic ether, all about the importance of listening.  Upon watching it one thinks about relationship contexts mainly, especially the oft-seen tendency of men to fix things instead of just empathizing and supporting their partners.

Ah but the video is a great object lesson for professional helpers.  There is a strong sense of urgency among many healthcare providers to quickly and efficiently apply the "intervention" to the "symptom", because that is what the diagnosing/insurance/billing industrial complex demands. The forces behind this complex are tremendous and so embedded in some helping systems that many don't stop and think for a moment about how this form of "helping" may be affecting the "helped".

Sometimes, it doesn't matter how "right" the helper is.  The one receiving the help must feel heard and understood first, as this facilitates acceptance and motivation to be helped in the first place.  I recall a story about a homeless woman, hungry and cold, who upbraided a good Samaritan for "throwing me a bone".  Before she received food and clothing, she wanted to be understood.  In particular she wanted her pain to be understood.  That was her primary need at the moment.  Her "helpers" assumed her physical needs were more fundamental than her emotional or spiritual needs.  This is where many of us go awry.

The video takes us back to the early days of our training.  We were first taught basic helping skills, such as empathy, genuineness, positive regard and active listening.  Somehow the systems we work in may distract us from these elemental approaches to human suffering.  Let's go back then, and learn this all over again.  If you are involved in training the next generation of helpers, consider showing them the video.  After the jokes subside, tell them to get serious about this one.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Vignette 2: What Would You Do?

Sarah, a depressed student

Imagine you are in the position of advising a college student about her classes.  She walks into your office unexpectedly, looking for help.

Background: Sarah is a junior and does well in class and is usually perky and energetic.  Lately though she appears fatigued, quiet, and withdrawn.  Instead of being her usual talkative self, her close friends notice she just keeps her head down and seems to mope around.  Others haven’t seen her in a while and don’t know what is going on.

Scene: Sarah meets with her advisor about next fall’s schedule of classes.

Mr. Hayes: Hey Sarah!  Haven’t seen you in a while.  (He notices her appearance, which is unkempt and tired) How are you?

Sarah: (Looks down, emotionally flat) OK.

Mr. Hayes: OK, well, what did you have in mind today?

Sarah: I guess I need to set up classes for the fall.  I am not sure though…what I want or need.  Or even it it’s important.

Mr. Hayes: I have to tell you, that surprises me.  You’re usually right on top of everything.

Sarah: (Angrily) I wish everyone would stop saying that!  I am so tired of doing what everyone expects me to do!

Mr. Hayes: Whoa, Sarah.  I’m not really telling you what to do.  I’m just surprised, that’s all.  What is going on?  You seem different.

Sarah: I’m not who you think I am…

Mr. Hayes: What do you mean?

Sarah: I’m bored.  I don’t care about anything anymore.  All this school stuff is stupid.  I just want to sleep and be left alone.  I’m tired of people calling me, asking me stuff.  (Tears start to flow) My boyfriend doesn’t deserve this, so I avoid him too.  He’s getting frustrated, just like you.  Just like everyone else.  I guess I can’t blame them…all I’ve done for a couple months is sleep and watch TV and eat junk.  But I don’t care.  Goodbye Mr. Hayes, you won’t be seeing me anymore.

Suggestions: First, that last statement requires clarification.  Ask Sarah exactly what she means by that before she leaves your office.  If safety appears to be an issue, contact your campus counseling service for assistance right away.  If safety does not appear to be an issue make an attempt to understand her obvious distress.  Say "Please tell me more about what is bothering you, I'd like to help."  Asking questions about basic things like eating, sleeping, going to class, family and friendships will often reveal a lot about the type of issues Sarah struggles with.  Once you have an understanding of her concerns, focus on empathizing and not judging Sarah.  Then offer to help her see someone who can help her further.  Say "We have a great counseling center and I'd like to help you get an appointment there."  Offer to make the call for her right there in your office.  But then hand the telephone to Sarah when it is time to set the appointment.  Or you could offer to walk with her to the center yourself.  Later, follow up with her and ask her about her appointment, and encourage her to go if she has not done so.  Benign encouragement and persistence can go a long way in getting students the help they need.