Monday, March 28, 2005

Being Straight Up

Sometimes, when we in front-line social work decide to refuse services, we make excuses, or try to present a reasonable explanation for our decision. This may come in the form of "That's the rules," a way of diffusing the blame into a large organization or list of policies. It's easy, and it allows us to connect with the person in need while still refusing the service. Sometimes, it is hard to admit the real reason. Perhaps the person smells of alcohol, and services are being denied for the safety of other clients and staff. It is uncomfortable for those of us who wish to be "non-judgemental" to accuse somebody of drinking. We may have a gut feeling about the client, or we may in fact be dealing with a policy or funding issue, and unable to work around it. Whatever the case may be, we are there, having a difficult position, and wanting to explain it without having any confrontation.

It is important to keep in mind that any "behind the scenes" thoughts or judgments are likely to be picked up by the person we are working with. People who ask for help a lot are quite experienced with the different ways of saying no, and they have an uncanny ability to spot bullshit. Sometimes, the social worker may use a non-confrontational approach, be as nice as possible, and still find him/herself in a verbal conflict, because there are un-said things in the conversation. Of course, the loser in a conflict will usually be the street person, who may end up talking to the police or getting a ban as a result of not taking no for an answer.

Therefore, those of us who help professionally have a big responsibilty to be clear and honest about why services are being denied. We need to develop the skill of owning our decisions. Obviously, we can't use these skills in every situation. For example, a drunk person in a state of rage is hardly a receptive candidate for honesty. Still, we can follow a few simple principles to make sure we are not pulling the wool over the eyes of the people we are trying to help:

1) Take time to answer. Too often, confrontations happen because the two people are rushing to come to resolution without listening, or thinking about what is being said.

2) Speak with the classic "I" language. Avoid accusations, and try to replace "You're not allowed to..." with "I am not willing to let you..."

3) Trust your gut, and listen to your gut. If you have a suspicion about substance abuse, don't be afraid to say "I suspect you're high right now..."

4) Listen and reflect the frustration of the client. This is a simple-to-understand-yet-impossible-to-master type of skill.

5) Make sure your decision is clear. Are you saying no instinctively, or do you have a really good reason? Be clear to yourself about why you are saying no, it will help you communicate it.

6) Move slowly. Breathe. Relax.

I am not going to claim I have made much progress in the area of saying no, but I am aware that when I use some of the ideas above, outcomes are better. I would be interested to hear some other ideas on this topic. If you are lurking out there, please post, ok? Not only would it appease my ego to know that others are reading this stuff, it would create a collective understanding of the issue.

Derek Out...

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