Observation

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

I fear  that we pay rather too little attention to the points from which the effective social worker (drug worker, probation officer) sets out, just as the habit of taking a social history with the service user has faded somewhat. It is potentially misleading territory, and the suspicion that surrounds pop psychological interpretations of people’s lives from their childhood experiences is often well merited.

Nonetheless, we are not private individuals who choose to go into helping professions for random reasons; we do not have a professional persona that is detached from and uninfluenced by that private individuality. The starting points are relevant therefore; choosing them may be somewhat haphazard – I suspect different starting points would occur to me on different days.

In truth, starting ‘points’ are wrongly termed since they emerge and they are not points, though we choose them to pin them down to something that can be shared. Indeed it is probably fair to say that it is the way in which we emerge that is worth reviewing. The first experience I remember on my professional training was the observation of a mother and baby. It required me to consider how far the baby could be understood separately from the mother. Our role of observer affected us all in different ways – as a callow and inexperienced youth I was I think an anxious observer, fearful of the physical intimacy, the unprotected dependence, the primitive  infantile emotions and the bodily fluids that come with infancy. It was perhaps only later that it occurred to me that my observation work was not simply to watch interaction between mother and baby, nor even to consider whether my presence affected that interaction, but also to observe my own engagement with, immersion in that mother-baby relationship.

The traditional post student experience of ‘finding myself’ had a more specific and disciplined meaning as I entered social work. The interest in and anxiety about relatedness encountered in this observation task, had already established deep roots before professional training. As the ‘son of a manse’, I was already aware of being apart from the usual engagement in community. I have already referred to the separateness that came for my father with ordination and book learning. It was also a social separateness that came from always being ‘on show’ in the church community, and a separateness that came from a sense of the community as something to be observed, commented on, visited when infirm or sick, cared for when bereaved etc. Our existence as a family was defined by the term ‘ministry’ – service to others in which the self was something to be put aside. There was even the theology to articulate this – “whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it…”.

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