Being helpful – not ‘right’

This is part of active listening; it is about being helpful rather than being ‘right’. It had struck me early in my career that sessions with my clients that seemed to go particularly well, in which the client had perhaps shown insight into their problem and possible means of tackling it, were often followed by no discernable change in their lives. On the other hand, sessions that seemed awful, muddled, painful or hopeless could often be followed by some kind of shift or development. I became aware of how often we described a discussion with a client as a good one because we felt good, and how little this had to do with what the client had taken from the meeting.

There seemed to be a need, if change were to be achieved, for the worker to experience the sense of life’s impossibility that was the clients’ feeling of impossibility; to go through times of not being able to make sense of anything. This meant that the approach I took to my work was intense and emotionally demanding. With a caseload of 50 offenders as a young probation officer, it was not possible to become so emotionally engaged with them all. I was aware of clients where I lacked the energy to engage with them beyond a practical level. I also later observed the same fatigue in my team when a couple of them ran a group for people with alcohol problems. As I recall it now, whilst my team were getting exhausted by their alcohol group to the point that they could not face starting a new group without a few months’ rest, another team in the city was able to run regular alcohol groups on a less intensive model – ‘alcohol education groups’ they were called.

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