Saying ‘No’

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 .

This way of looking at the experience of giving help had real advantages for me as an emerging worker. First of all, it gave me a framework in which to grapple with the most difficult but underestimated skills of the helping professional – the skill of saying ‘no’. Saying ‘no’ was not just a strategy to avoid spending the petty cash, or to defend against the ‘manipulation’ of the client, but it was a door through which the transaction between worker and client could be opened up to new possibilities. To oversimplify, the worker can say to the client, “if your world is one in which people either give you things such as money or are useless and hostile, I want to create a new possibility – that there is a world in which people do not give you things, but still care about you and are on your side.”

Secondly, it gave me the possibility of forgiveness where I was not able to say ‘no’ when that would have been the most helpful approach. This was important because saying ‘no’ is really difficult, especially for an insecure student who is only just on the door step of adulthood, and when working with people some of whose worlds can be so frightening that there is no way they can tolerate changing their understanding of things, or perhaps even allow themselves to have an understanding of things. It gave me the idea that in order to help, there will be times when the urgency of the client’s needs will be such that they will draw you into their world, and take you out of all the thoughts and behaviours that you would normally use in the role of ‘worker’.  You could find yourself giving money to people when you knew there was no point; you would get into arguments when it was clear that there could be no ‘winning’; you would collude in evading something you knew was true. Only afterwards could you ‘recover yourself’ and wonder how you could have behaved so unhelpfully, but Bill’s formulation meant you did not have to respond as if your own failings were the most important part of what had happened – you could recover a focus on the needs of the client in trouble and what that encounter told you about him or her and his/her world.


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