You cannot have a neutral impact on someone that you see on a regular basis- be it your child, a young person on your social work or youth offending caseload right through to the person that you rub shoulders with at work every day. If you are a ‘regular’ in their lives then you are having a regular impact. You might think that they aren’t listening to you, you might not speak to them much, but by virtue of the fact that you are there- you are making a difference. As a result how you mentally approach each and every interaction is of more importance than you might initially realise.
Obviously going into a session thinking that you really don’t like the person you are meeting is setting yourself up to fail- to fail yourself and the person you are meeting. From overtly negative thoughts come negative and probably over-critical interpretations of things that they say and do. Your tolerance levels are rock bottom, they pick up on your negative vibe and are likely to be more obnoxious, which pushes your buttons even further, and away you go into an interminable downward negative spiral.
So compared to this, neutral thinking doesn’t seem so bad. What harm can thinking, “it doesn’t matter what I say they will do their own thing”, or “what I say or do won’t make any difference” do? Well quite a lot actually. It is really dangerous thinking precisely because on the surface it doesn’t seem too bad- you can justify it by thinking that others would agree with you. It certainly wouldn’t get the raised eyebrow from colleagues that outright saying that you disliked a young person would.
The problem with neutral thinking is that it absolves you of any responsibility for the outcome of your time with them. It says that what you say and do isn’t really all that important and that if sessions fail, it is the young person’s fault, not yours. And as soon as you fail to take into account your role in an interaction, then you stop striving to improve your practise, you lose the desire to ‘crack the nut’ and ultimately you stop caring. From thoughts come actions, or inactions and before you know it, sloppiness, limited effort and a gloomy sense of pre-determinism creep into your work. At this point you are nowhere near neutral- you are having a negative impact.
Young people can sniff out someone who doesn’t really care a mile off. They have usually received a lifetime’s experience on how ‘not caring’ manifests itself. They are the drugs dogs of the not-caring world and as soon as they get that whiff, they’re off. They are lost to you.
It is therefore vital that you go into every encounter with a young person with a positive attitude, determined to have a positive impact despite what they might ‘throw’ at you. Positivity breeds positivity. When thinking positively your tolerance levels will sky-rocket and in that frame of mind you can easily out-positive any young person’s negativity.
I once worked with a young person who liked to tell me to ‘fuck off’ very quietly under his breath every time I asked him something. I would just smile at him and pretend I hadn’t heard him and wait for his answer. He was wanting a ‘rise’ out of me like he got out of every other professional he ever worked with and I wouldn’t give it to him. It was his way of trying to get rid of me because he thought he could get me to breach him from his supervision programme. Oh, it was wearing thin, but each time I went into a session I would reassure myself that one day he would stop, that if I kept on trying different things that one day it would end, he would open up and I could really start to help him. That is what drove me on and kept my tolerance levels up.
One time I asked him a question along the lines of ‘What would you say to that person if they bad-mouthed your cousin again?” and quick as a flash I said, “don’t tell me, I know this one already, ‘Fuck off'”. His closed, sullen miserable face suddenly opened and out popped this huge beam of a smile, then a little giggle. I had found my way in- cheeky humour of the sort that you don’t necessarily expect from a professional. He never said ‘Fuck off’ to me again and from that point on we were on defrost setting. Perseverence, determination to solve a problem and a sense of humour are all required, none of which you can achieve if you are a negative or neutral thinker.
Positive thinking that goes along the lines of “There is a good kid lurking in there somewhere. What makes him hide that person away? How can I find out where and why he’s gone? What strategies can I use to get to the heart of the problem and to liberate him/her from it? How do I even get them to start talking to me?” can only bring positive results. You might not answer all of the questions but progress will be made, and progress is success just as much as getting to the end goal is.
Positive thinking does the exact opposite of negative and neutral thinking; it motivates you to work harder to help them and it stimulates resourcefulness and lateral thinking. While working harder sounds like an impossible task when you are already working yourself to the bone, positivity is its own energy and you will find you have more get-up-and-go. As you see the fruits of your labours you will be further energised and will find yourself stuck in a delightful upward positive spiral.
To think your attitudes don’t affect your behaviour is as stupid as suggesting that a young person’s attitudes don’t affect their behaviour. If you want to get real with them, then you’ve got to get real with yourself; you do make a difference and will always have an impact. You’ve got to make sure that the difference you make is a positive one and avoiding negative and neutral thoughts is the first step, positive thinking the next, and success the next. Go on, start walking, see where it get you.