Learning to be responsible

I have dated my own ‘coming of age’ in social work from a time when I experienced this issue in supervision when I was at the Family Welfare Association (FWA). Up to that point, my supervisors had been caring parental figures whom I viewed largely benevolently. This was in many ways fine of course – I was young and learning, and was fortunate to have good regular supervision in which I felt valued and encouraged. It is paradoxical however that had my relationship with my supervisors remained of this nature, I would also have remained as the junior learner potentially kept as a sort of juvenile worker. When I went to the FWA, I still saw myself as this inexperienced ‘junior’ professional – my application to the Tavistock Clinic had failed because I was seen as too ‘green’. It was within the supervision relationship with my FWA manager that this pattern shifted.

Most of the team (and many of his clients) got rather cross with our Freudian manager – he was very bright and apparently confident. Some saw this as arrogance. He was himself on the way to becoming a psycho analyst and this understanding strongly informed his approach to supervision. In particular, he never gave you answers to your questions, nor showed much sympathy for worries and upsets that came with the job. He was observant and forensic in his responses to what I would raise with him. It was my job to decide what to raise, itself an unnerving responsibility because you knew that that choice of subject matter was itself being scrutinised and interpreted. I found the whole experience very anxiety inducing – instead of being looked after by a parent figure, as I had come to expect, I was required to take adult responsibility for what I chose to discuss, and for the conclusions that I would draw from the session. After a while, it clicked somewhere within me that I had to grow up, and to stop looking for a parent in my boss.


Silence 2

Working in the voluntary sector where cases came because they wanted help, it made sense to start by asking them to describe their problem(s) and then to wait for them to find the words. I would comment so that they could know that I was listening, and my checking out that I had understood what they were saying would give them some evidence that my thinking was active and relevant. There would often be periods of silence with some clients through this process.

I had formed a notion of the value of apparently ‘fallow’ time as a student on placement when there could be periods of time with ‘nothing to do’. It is easy for a tutor in their anxiety to prove useful and to give the student as full a grounding as possible, to fill every moment with activity. Students could feed into this by getting cross if they were bored. Of course, sometimes they would be right to be cross, but I did find in retrospect that the apparently empty time had given me the chance to absorb new experiences and forced me to think about them more fully than I would have done if rushed immediately on to new activities.

The same could apply in the helping session – the client would get frustrated by silences. Sometimes they may be cross that I was not doing more to be helpful. They would often find however that the intensity of attention that went with silences was both challenging and prompted them to think more deeply about their lives.


Once the illusion of some warm nurturing quality to our helping work had begun to give way to a more realistic sense of what we are engaged with, it was possible to think a bit more creatively about this worker – client tension, not as a disappointing distraction from what we had set out to do, but as a feature of the work to be understood and applied.

A significant part of my training experience concerned the use of silence – it was subject to some mockery and misuse I fear. Rather ludicrously, our experience of being ‘taught’ social psychology, was of the tutor coming to seminars, it seemed to wait and see what we thought about things. Since we didn’t think much about social psychology and had very little idea what it was supposed to be, we all promptly failed. The therapist’s apparently passive waiting for the client to reveal what? was also easily mockable, and yet silence was often provocative and in the right hands, a powerful engine for discovery.

The notion that the client is responsible for their problem and the therapist should therefore wait to see how the client chooses to present it, has some force in some settings, and can inform the approach to challenging work in all kinds of circumstances. It is not easy to align this with the range of comprehensive assessment tools that operate these days in most helping services, since these tools pose the risk that the worker is presented as knowing more about the client’s problem than the client him or herself, and as knowing all the questions that need to be asked. (I’ll return to this.) If however the worker is starting on the assumption that they should not take over the client’s responsibility for their problem, it is important that they recognise everything the client brings as communication – silence for example works both ways.

There was a time in my life when I went for help to a therapist. It was a disappointing and in some ways distressing experience, but it was certainly confusing. My therapist took the ‘silent waiting’ route, but I had no real idea what my problem was, nor what I was looking for from therapy. I can look back now and see all kinds of things that I did not understand then. I had lost my way in my marriage, had fallen in love with someone whom I kept as a rather idealised fantasy figure but was paralysed by guilt about what was happening to me. Faced with the therapist, I found myself totally clammed up, unable to speak, unable to think how to use the session. Unfortunately my therapist did not seem to see this paralysed clammed up state as the problem I was taking to him – he just continued to wait for me to articulate something. Eventually, I gave up.

A little while afterwards, I attended a conference on attachment theory in London, and although I cannot now recall the details, I do know we were shown a film about a young boy in distress who was unable to speak. The worker in this case had the wisdom to see this silence as an important communication about his state and gradually to enable the boy to begin to see the anger and misery that maintained him in that silence. The boy of course began to find a voice. I was completely spellbound by this and began to cry as if I were that boy emerging from the silence.


Surviving hate

This can be a disturbing experience – too much for some parents sadly. It was whilst struggling with the task of bringing up my own two daughters that the insights of Donald Winnicott into the value and importance of hate spoke directly to me. Love and hate are not opposites – they belong together and this is something of a surprise as one grows up.[1] Winnicott makes us think about hate, not as some unmentionable taboo that is unacceptable in a professional helper, but as a normal part of real human relationships, even or perhaps especially in the relationship between the mother and baby.

Also, as I have already described, we grow, learn and develop not through some nice mutually rewarding warm emotional sharing, but much more commonly through fighting, tussles, struggle and opposition. That is what the ‘terrible twos’ are reminding us, but it is all too easy to forget this when seeking to help adults who behave in some ways similarly. Indeed, the parent who cannot allow their children to fight them and who cannot demonstrate the potential of love to survive hate, will be doing their children a disservice. The same is true of the helping professions. I was very struck by the importance of surviving as a caring and listening presence for people who had no real experience of such a survival, whose relationships were characterised always by conditional love, love that only survived if the carer’s needs were met. ‘Survival’, I kept thinking was a real achievement. This only made sense if we were trying to come to terms with the hope for something more, and found instead, that we were grappling with the wish to finish contact with the client concerned. There were many apparently legitimate ways of failing to ‘survive’ for our clients. For probation officers, the most common solution was for the client to be sent to prison. Then we could pass the responsibility on to someone else (perhaps in our imagination the prison probation officer), heave a quiet sigh of relief and move on to some more promising client. I’ll return to this subject when I come to write more about organisations. ……………

[1] ‘Hate in the Counter transference’ in Through Paediatrics to Psycho Analysis; D W Winnicott (1958) Hogarth Press

Facing the tension

In other settings, the tension within the relationship between client and worker was a bit of a shock for the new worker. You set out on a career that is designed to help others, to overcome injustices experienced by the poor, the sick or the elderly, and it is hard not to believe at some level that your efforts will be appreciated by those you are trying to help. The sentimentality of this expectation will not be hidden for long, although there are those who cannot really forgive the ingratitude of some clients – the basis for a rather bitter future in which moralistic judgments feature increasingly large.

The young social worker has to learn some harsh truths. Poverty is of course not an ennobling experience. People who lack the opportunity to grow and mature cared for in a loving relationship with their parents or carers, tend to have serious immaturities and sometimes primitive and unattractive emotional lives. Working with such troubled people involves sticking with them until they achieve a loveable state. We are used to this with children; we coin the term ‘the terrible twos’ to describe a difficult process through which children have to grow. There is not a parent who has not at some point hated their child as they fight their way through some emotional developmental crisis.

Tension in the supervisory relationship

The nature of the tension does vary according to the setting – I will return to this – but the new worker has first of all to come to terms with its existence. It is easy to jump to conclusions about this tension and people entering the probation service often expected more tension in the form of conflict, than did those who imagined their client group would be more compliant and eager for help. It soon became clear that the world is more complex than that. First of all, many probation clients are remarkably compliant. Some groups of clients such as some sex offenders are almost notoriously compliant.  Secondly, one discovers that there is an almost inverse relationship between compliance and change. Agree with everything, obey the rules (explicit and implicit), and avoid having to change. If the crime is especially horrible, evident in incest cases, clients can take this compliance to the point of tearful remorse, very useful if you want to stop someone saying something truly challenging. They can almost invite anger and condemnation – it merely confirms what they know that they are, ghastly people, and so can do no different.

Other people are compliant in a different way. They simply obey the rules and say, sometimes openly, that they have done what is required of them by attending supervision regularly, and that is all that they are going to do. The more ‘professional’ criminals, often people on parole in my practitioner days would often adopt this approach. The more serious the offender, the easier it seemed they were to supervise (and the less likely they were to change.)

Conversely the people who did seem to change were often those clients with whom supervision had been a kind of argument. This could be that they would attend appointments and be persistently difficult, or it might be that they engaged you in a ‘war of attrition’ in trying to get them to report regularly.

This phenomenon made me very suspicious of colleagues when they said they had just had a good interview with a client. So many ‘good interviews’ turned out to be interesting discussions but no more than that, and so many ‘bad interviews’ that you would come out of feeling useless or angry turned out to be part of a change process.

The Relationship between the supervisor and the supervised

I have long thought that many management approaches to staff supervision are often based on a very unsafe and unnecessary assumption. The view seems to be that professionals are intelligent and well motivated individuals who therefore can be allowed to get on with their work with minimum supervision unless a problem arises. Problems are seen as exceptional. My own view from early on in this work was that however intelligent and well motivated the individual professional, the nature of the work is inherently confusing and problematic. Indeed, it has been my experience that it is good staff who find themselves in difficulty and know they need help. Poorer staff either do not engage with the clients sufficiently to have any difficulty, or identify so closely with the clients that they are unable to distinguish a problem from a non problem. The unsafe assumption generates a real difficulty for the manager because it means that their taking an interest in a situation necessarily means that they must think it is a difficulty that needs to be put right – the supervised worker is then immediately on the defensive.

My Grendon staff member that I discussed in the last chapter operated on that basis. There was no need to tell me of her relationship because it was not, in her mind, a problem. The supervisor would only be interested if there were a difficulty that needed to be tackled, and so when I reacted to the news of the relationship as if there was something to discuss, it must mean that I was saying their relationship was such a difficulty. Therefore she had to fight me and defend against whatever I might be saying.

There is however a necessary tension between the supervisor and the supervisee, between worker and client. It is one of the early issues at the start of a career, to come up against this tension, its nature and sometimes the significance of its apparent absence.