In the phase of setting out into a helping profession, there is so much to discover through observation, analysis, reading, listening that it is possible to forget that you are already becoming experienced at working with people. There are occasional landmarks that make you aware of this; when you stop being the least experienced person in the office; when you have your first student etc. It is also easy to lose sight of some of the realities of getting involved in other people’s lives. There is a kind of inevitable innocence at work.
One of my first clients as a student was an elderly man who unfortunately knew the criminal justice system inside out. I had no real idea I think what I was doing with him, and no way of making any real sense of a 60 year old persistent petty offender’s life. I sometimes in retrospect flinch at my naivety and ignorance, but actually experience and knowledge can easily be over-rated. Near the end of my time ‘working’ with him, [I say working uncertainly. I certainly made appointments with him, saw him regularly and asked him things about his life.] this old lag said to me that he thought I would go far in my career. As they say, he probably said that to all the young students that supervised him, but I do think there was some sincerity in the comment and it surprised me. It made me think that it was not just me looking at his life that was going on, but he was looking at what he could see of mine.
He was in fact breaking one of the assumed rules of the helping professions i.e. that the focus of attention should be entirely on the client. Attempts to engage with the worker as a private person were to be seen as a defensive (unconscious) or even evasive (deliberate). They challenged the given power structure and allowed the client to wrest control of the agenda from the worker. In student circles of course these very factors were an attraction, captured in two notions. One was that the worker / client relationship should be collaborative with power equally shared. The second was that the client should be able to see the worker as a ‘real person’.