Importance and the Helper’s Role

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 .

The concept of ‘being important’ is difficult territory to explain because it can so easily seem like a kind of self-centredness or even a delusion.

As it happens, one of the first clues that you might be becoming important is that your clients in a probation context at least, sometimes pour scorn on the idea – the need for someone to diminish your significance is a symptom of a sort of tension at least. This kind of importance is partly a function of the role – at its crudest for a probation officer, the potential to have someone brought back to court to be further punished. This is though a crude expression of the phenomenon and in fact an evasive one in some ways. This I discovered in a number of ways.

In the 1970s, young people under 16 were supervised under the terms of a ‘supervision order’, which in practical terms offered few sanctions for breach of the terms of the order. Probation officers at the time often complained about this. Young people in a rather ‘grunty’ phase of life were difficult to supervise at the best of times, but how was one supposed to get anywhere with them if they wouldn’t come and see you, and there was nothing you could do about it?

Perhaps enjoying being perverse, I used to say that it was a good thing that no effective sanctions existed. It occurred to me that being able to take young people back to Court for non attendance reduced the issue to one of whether rules were or were not being broken. In the absence of the power to punish for non attendance, we were forced to think rather more deeply about how to intervene. We had to challenge an assumption that the value of what we did was mediated through the words we imparted to the client in the office interview. The widely held view seemed to be that a failure to attend was a barrier to useful work when it might be a message to us that our office based interviews were themselves not useful work. The struggle to find a way of getting to the youngster was not an irritating preamble to work, it was the work. It forced me to go to the young person’s home and to make an alliance with the parents, and to discover that the parents could often be helped to tackle their children’s troubles far more effectively than I ever could.

In fact of course, many youngsters reported regularly as if we did have the power to punish. The authority of the role made its impact almost without one being aware of it.


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