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 .
D H Pennington on Hobbes:
Commentators on the whole agree in praising the logical and uncompromising clarity of his argument and go on to differ fundamentally about what he meant.
I sat down to write this after receiving a copy of a book about work in the probation service. It was written by three managers each of whom I have previously supervised. It is well written and from most points of view rather more practical and down to earth than the prelude with which I am presenting you. It tries to describe the world as it is, for a probation officer setting out on his or her career – to bring probation work into a clear framework.
In a sense therefore it is a good book, trying to give people information that they can understand and translate into what they do in their work. This is fundamentally a common sense approach that runs all through the work of helping agencies. Everyone looks for ‘clarity’ in the belief that once such clarity is provided, the way to act, the things that can then usefully be done, will then be obvious and possible to deliver. This ‘clarity’ is essentially an intellectual and word based phenomenon – to be found in ‘vision statements’, strategic policy documents and university text books.
I think at one stage in my career, I dismissed too lightly this kind of approach to learning about work with people in trouble. I was not alone – in my social work training, we endured some social psychology ‘lectures’ in which no clarity of this intellectual kind was provided – intentionally. It was all about discovery through experience, an approach that left the whole year group bewildered and completely unable to pass the exam paper at the end of the year.
Hopefully, what I have to say now has a better balance, and welcomes intellectual clarity where it can be unearthed. Nonetheless I am not satisfied with the ‘manual of explanation’ approach to learning about work with troubled people, despite the contribution that it undoubtedly makes.
The difficulty is that what helps people is not just ‘what you know’ but ‘what you are’, and I don’t think it is sentimental to believe that ‘what you are’ is if anything more important than what you know, when dealing with emotional distress, changing behaviour and tackling disorder.