Survival 7

So what kind of hope may be involved here? Crime fiction often likes the idea that an offender re-offends in the hope that they may be caught and stopped from continuing their destructive spree. There can be some truth in this for some people. For some desperate folk, the hope to be caught and imprisoned can be more simply explained – they need an asylum. For them,life in the community is frightening, lonely, and associated with cold and hunger, whilst life in prison provides warmth, food, company and a secure sense of identity. At its heart, though, the hope I am talking about is the hope that offending will make something different, will change a hopeless situation. It can be hope that someone will recognise a terrible internal world that the offender is unable to communicate in any other way. For some , to desist from offending (recover from addiction, depression etc) raises a deep seated fear that they will, once ‘better’, be ignored, left in lonely isolation, with no purpose in their life. It is the equivalent of children who feel they have to misbehave to be noticed. Such hope then may be disordered or selfish but it is an energy that can open the door to future change.

If offending is therefore just treated as a failure of work with that offender, and the work broken off and left to others, this can reflect a failure of the worker to ‘survive’, to retain the hope and sensitivity that can recognise that part of what has happened that shows an energy in the offender for things to be different. If the worker can survive and be in touch with this energy, new opportunities for a better future can open up.


Survival 6

One of the odd paradoxes of work with people in trouble is that re-offending is in some cases an act of hopefulness, a truth that is well disguised behind the overwhelming sense of failure and blame that characterise the most common reaction to the offending.

Now I realise that this idea of offending as an action of ‘hope’ may invite a snort of disbelief. Indeed, the preoccupation with guilt and blame in the face of offending can lead people to be offended by such an idea, as if designating an offender as ‘hopeful’ is somehow to mitigate the reality of the destructiveness of their behaviour and of its impact on the victim(s). The politics surrounding criminal justice is plagued by this fear that to try and explain is to try and excuse. Explanation is dismissed as the province of liberals who wish to see offenders as victims.

However, when I say that offending can be an action of hope, I am not saying anything that mitigates responsibility for offending nor anything that has any bearing on the appropriateness or otherwise of punishment. I am however saying something of importance to those who work with offenders with the objective of moving them away from further offending.

You may also think that to describe offending as ‘hopeful’ makes no sense because of the despair and misery people often feel about their offending. We are all too inclined to think that behaviour is motivated by one feeling or another – by love or by hate, by selfishness or by altruism. This may be a convenient shorthand for everyday purposes, but it is inadequate to meet the challenge of troubled behaviours and emotions. There is in fact very little that we do that is not fuelled by a complex cocktail of often contradictory but co-existing emotion. Altruism can often be both generous and selfish – gifts often involve real kindness and also the hope to be seen as kind. So offending can be both an act of despair and an act of hope simultaneously.


Survival 5

‘Survival’ is also threatened in other ways. Most obviously and commonly in probation work, client re-offending can easily ‘kill off’ a professional relationship (just as break downs of abstinence can ‘kill off’ a relationship with addicts). I do not suggest that in such circumstances professional survival is always possible. Reality may intervene such that the offender can no longer maintain a working relationship with their previous worker. However, all too often professional relationships break down because of institutional rigidities, or a loss of hope by the worker or often by a combination of the two.

Institutional rigidities are all too common and they can have their roots in hidden emotional transactions that feed them. Just as Isabel Menzies noted how rigid specialisation of nursing tasks served to protect nurses from exposure to the painful realities of patient experience, so the way work with offenders is structured can serve to protect workers from the emotional pain of their clients’ failures and destructiveness. So all too often, re-offending is seen as a failure requiring a new intervention strategy by a new worker.


Survival 4

All the above is on its own a misleading account of professional survival in that it does not highlight the charged emotional context in which helping professionals operate. There is a world of difference between seeking help for a technical problem – a benefits mix up, a legal question (although even in these there is a significant emotional context that if understood can enable help to be effectively provided) – and seeking help with a personal trouble, though clients will often seek to disguise the latter behind the former. Sometimes, I would find workers colluding with their clients in a kind of pretence that some relatively technical problem was being tackled and would dismiss suggestions that something else was going on as unnecessary complication. Readers will recall the pattern of anxious attachment discussed earlier which was characterised by a lack of emotional expression and a preoccupation with material objects. Workers who bought into this defensive structure would rarely sustain relationships of any depth and significance with their clients. These relationships all too often ended in a mutual sense of pointlessness.

‘Professional survival’ as I am defining it, involved therefore some kind of emotional engagement, a taking part in the ‘argument’ that is a meaningful relationship. Even when the worker is in touch with the need for this, ‘survival’ is sometimes extremely difficult. For some clients, their very existence can seem to depend on maintaining superficiality in relation ships, on keeping everyone including themselves, away from inner turmoil, need and intimacy. There are few of us that have not found ourselves using a similar defence mechanism in the face of emotional distress. If you doubt this, just consider how universal is the pressure parents feel to hide their depression from their children.

‘Professional’ survival’ does not however mean throwing yourself into the ’emotional maelstrom’ that is the clients’ inner world. The turmoil the client is avoiding may be objectively frightening – murderous impulses, fantasies of sexual violence, psychotic episodes etc. In many such cases, the danger to professional survival may be failure to survive a feeling of pointlessness about the working relationship and to agree with the client that there is no point in continuing. The work may feel boring, it may feel a waste of time, but one of the most demanding requirements on workers is to wait, to hang on until a shift occurs that allows the worker to enter a more meaningful argument with the client. The difficulty of this ‘waiting’ can be considerable – the worker may well be feeling that their contact with the client is genuinely pointless and going nowhere whilst other cases are clamouring for attention. The worker’s problem is to remain active in their listening – in other words ‘waiting’ in this context if not a passive state. The workers must remain alive to what the client is communicating in words, in mood, in body language, in behaviour and constantly demonstrating to the client that they are paying attention and thinking actively about their experience and problems. Where breakdowns of the clients defensive framework are revealed – a moment of sadness, or self doubt for example – the worker must resist the urge to leap into the opening like an angler’s strike. To do that may be to risk losing the client altogether.


Survival 3

It may seem too obvious to say but we must not forget that if we are working with people in trouble to the extent that some sort of public intervention – medical or behavioural – is required, we are facing problems that involve extreme distress and fear. This can be taken as a given, however the client presents themselves. Indeed, those showing least overt distress or fear can often be the most frightened, too frightened to allow themselves to be in touch with the fear.

The survival of the professional relationship cannot therefore be taken for granted. In fact, if you examine the work of helping services from this perspective it is significant how often professional relationships do not survive, how few end with a shared sense of completion. There are many common forms that this failure to survive takes.

In voluntary helping services, failures to survive are often all too overt – the client drops out of the helping process. This is however not as simple as it may seem. In one of the family therapy cases with which I did work, the family ended treatment with one of the parents saying that, having discussed the sessions together, they had agreed they felt so awful they had decided they had to talk issues through themselves! It is unfortunately not always possible to know what the outcome of helping work is, but it is not unusual for positive endings to take place in this way. People can come to a realisation that they are looking for the impossible from a helping service and that an alternative way forward is possible. Such occurrences are therefore not always properly understood as a failure of survival in the helping process.

Client drop out often does reflect a failure of survival however. One of the salutary experiences of moving from the probation service, where clients were mostly obliged to report to me, to the voluntary sector was to recognise that clients would only remain in the work with me if what I had to offer were good enough. ‘Survival’ therefore required the kind of active listening that convinced clients that they were understood, and that our work offered some promise of positive change. It highlighted how easily we would blame probation clients for failure to attend appointments when the quality of what we were offering was not up to scratch.


Survival 2

What took place in that ‘one to one’ work was rarely analysed , though it was in the early 2000’s in drug treatment services, and the results of this research were of great interest. This I will discuss in more detail in another place, but for now an important finding was that the researcher could identify only a small part of the client contact as delivering something that could be recognisable as a structured change intervention. Most of the time was spent on other often mundane or practical issues.

A number of things could be said about this. In particular, it seems to me to provide testimony to the power of clients to control their workers, to defend themselves. We are all familiar with this in ordinary life:

  • the patient who visits their doctor and manipulates them to define their problem as something that can be treated by a drug
  • the young person who persuades their parent that a few extra £s can make them happy
  • the old person who hides their growing helplessness behind a false independence.

And the closer that a worker gets to the trouble that the client is fearful of revealing, the more fearful and controlling the client can become. This dynamic can easily threaten to undermine the whole working relationship. Surely everyone in a helping role has experienced an interview / encounter in which a client let them get close to their distress only to find the client runs away from further contact.


Surviving 1

I want to write a little more about the concept of ‘professional survival’. My views about this developed through my early years as a practitioner but informed me throughout my career. I referred to these ideas in an earlier blog.

The idea of ‘professional survival’ has not, I think, received much attention in social work or probation literature and training. Its importance as a result has been insufficiently recognised, perhaps taken for granted because of its apparent obviousness.

This neglect of the apparently obvious has been an all too familiar error in a probation service whose practice has been blighted by a preoccupation with quasi-psychological interventions such as cognitive behavioural programmes. (Though I have little direct experience of direct work with children and families, or with mental illness, I suspect a similar dynamic has been at work there.) In probation for example, any serious analysis of what has in practice actually been delivered to offenders would show that, for all the preoccupation with establishing credible and accredited change programmes, only a small minority of offenders ever attend them or are allocated to them in the first place. Most were subject to a similar kind of well intentioned support and ‘counselling’ that has always characterised mainstream probation practice.