Caring with curiosity: getting to the heart of relationship-based working

It is tempting to think that we’ve seen it all, or at least most of it and to switch ourselves into autopilot. We meet with our troubled teens, see a familiar set of circumstances, a familiar set of behaviours and so one of our first go-to thoughts is- ‘well this approach or that intervention worked with all those other teens, so let’s run with that’.

There is nothing wrong with drawing on our previous experiences to inform our current thoughts and actions, in fact it makes a lot of sense. It is what we have learned works.

But it can also be extremely damaging. When we think we know what the task is before us, what the problem is that needs to be fixed before we have even started getting to know the person in front of us, we are undermining the working relationship before it has even begun. We are loading the young person in front of us with our own professional and sometimes personal experiences, creating obstacles limiting their ability to communicate effectively with us. When these young people are often struggling to communicate at all, we really can’t be throwing up more barriers to effective communication.

When we think we know what’s going on, we are at serious risk of not listening properly. Of making assumptions, of putting words in the mouth of our teens. Of rushing ahead and looking for a solution to a problem that we think we have perceived, that in fact isn’t the problem at all, or isn’t the CORE problem but is a symptom of it. We turn our expertise on and our ears off.

What is fundamentally lacking when we do this (and I defy any worker to say that they have not ever done this for reasons I will go into later), is a sense of curiosity.

Curiosity about the young person in front of us

curiosityWho are they? What is their life story as told by them? What is their life story as told by others? What led them to be here today? How do they feel about it?

The list of questions should go on and on. We might have ideas as to what the answers might be, based on our intuition and experience, but we have to be ready to be wrong.

In all of this, we are not the experts on the young person, on how they have experienced life, they are.

We might be experts (depending on our profession) on how to generally engage certain service groups or to deal with particular issues, but we are not the expert on the particular, individual young person we are working with, they are. We should never forget this. Forget this and we seriously damage our ability to reach them, engage them, communicate with them and to ultimately help them.

Yes, their perceptions of their life are subjective, but then so are our perceptions of their lives because we don’t come into the relationship as a blank slate with no personal and professional back story. This is life, this is human interaction and the messiness and magic of our relationships, personal and professional. We are all viewing life through our own particular lens and just because one person’s view on the same thing is not the same, does not make it any less valid.

And at the end of the day, the success of any intervention is entirely predicated on its suitability for the individual, for the individual as they view life, as they experience it. If we discount their view of it purely in preference for our ‘expertise’ we disempower them as authors of their own lives and seriously limit the likelihood of a successful outcome.

Change and growth enacted has to come from within the individual, we cannot impose it. We can foster it, we can encourage it, but the only way this happens is if we empower the young person and the best way to do this is to actually listen to them. There is nothing more empowering than being heard, feeling that your voice matters. There is no better foundation to a successful working relationship and of positive change than the act of listening based on curiosity.

Listening as the gateway to empathy

If we don’t have the curiosity to want to find out more about a young person and to listen to them, we shut down Listen with intent to understand quoteour ability to empathise with them. To begin to feel their pain and to begin to understand where they are coming from, to begin to understand why they might be behaving the way they are.

There is a large difference between intellectually understanding how someone feels, and emotionally understanding how someone feels. For us to truly empathise we have to open ourselves emotionally to the young person, in precisely the same way we are asking them to do when we ask them indirectly or directly to open up to us. In all of this there is a beautiful reciprocity, an equalisation of the relationship, a powerful unspoken communication of trust, of care, that can lead to quality life-changing spoken communication.

The risks of curiosity, listening and empathy

But there is an inherent risk in all of this, an inherent vulnerability which can so often work against us doing any of this. It subliminally causes us to go into autopilot, into the ‘I am the expert’ mindset, the closed view, the closed ears, where we don’t feel with our clients (empathy) and at best only feel for them (sympathy).

Working with challenging client groups can be exhausting. The ‘flying by the seat of your pants’, roller coaster ride of emotions that we are subjected to, where threat is always a distinct possibility, where volatility is a given, can be utterly draining.

So it is a perfectly natural response to protect ourselves emotionally as much as physically from all of this by disengaging, by pulling back, by going into autopilot. This is how we can gain some control over a situation that is so uncertain. We don’t get burned if we don’t stand too close to the fire.

But in my experience, if we don’t get close enough to the fire, we don’t feel the warmth that comes from it. Yes hands at firechallenging teens are exhausting, they can be downright obnoxious, but I find if I do not persist in trying to engage them, in listening to them, in empathising with them, I actually am more exhausted as I end up getting nowhere with them.

They can smell a mile off if I am not open, they can see my closed thinking writ large across my forehead, they can see the hands I have over my ears, and they can sense my power in the situation and the confirmation of their sense of ‘nothingness’. The relationship is dead before it begins. They lose any shred of hope they may have had, and we all sit there crumpled in the corner, exhausted, thinking this is all so pointless and hopeless.

But if we accept the uncertainty around how things might pan out, and if we open ourselves up to the possibility of the warmth from the fire then slowly but surely at least some of the young people start to give off heat, and as time goes by the risk of the burn diminishes. We are warmed inside by the fact that we got close enough and made a meaningful connection. In an instant our work acquires new purpose and new vigour and we all come out the other side.

We might cycle from exhaustion to reinvigoration multiple times in a month and sometimes all in the same day, but I have always found that overall the reinvigoration emotionally outweighs the exhaustion if I refuse to give up hope, if I refuse to give up trying because ultimately somewhere in it all some warmth comes. Trying to keep a positive outlook, trying to hold onto hope is what has always seen me through the exhausted times.

Using our struggle to help understand theirs

And in those times when we are tempted to autopilot our way through one of our caseload, we can use our apathy, our exhaustion, our frustration and our general negative feelings to actually help us empathise. Our pain is astoundingly powerful as a tool to connect with them.

hands at fire

What we are feeling is quite likely to mirror how they feel. Just as we are scared to get to close to the fire in case we are burnt, so are they. It is probable that they have been badly burned by volatile people in their lives. It is also probable that they have been badly burned when they stood too close to the fire expecting warmth and got burnt instead. It is quite probable that at least one of the people who burnt them was a professional like us.

So how we feel can help to inform our thoughts about a young person, to help inform what we might say to them, what we might ask them to find out how they are feeling, what they are thinking, what their view on the situation is.

And I personally find this process incredibly motivating. Negativity is transformed into positivity. From shrivelled raisins we can rise as juicy grapes!

This is what first-rate supervision should be doing for you. It should be a forum for you to talk honestly about how you feel, and to help you out the other side. It should be a place of transformative possibility for you without fear of judgement. It will make you a better more empowered motivated worker.

And once again, do you notice the parallels here? What your young people need in their sessions, is what you need for yourself in your supervision sessions- a safe non-judgemental place to talk, where listening is everything and where positivity can be found. Once again, an opportunity to use how we feel, and what we want and need, to understand what our clients want and need too.

And please don’t go beating yourself up if you still feel like you are stuck down a big black hole and there is no way out and no amount of first class supervision or positive thinking is going to get you where you need to be. Sometimes the sheer weight of caseloads, both quantity and content, work against you being the open, engaged worker you want to be, no matter how hard you try. This is called burnout. In which case you need recuperation and restoration. You can’t be giving out what you don’t have for yourself (parallels again). Talk to your manager, talk to your doctor, but please don’t continue to suffer in silence. You’re not helping yourself and can’t be effectively helping others either.

And so I suppose I end on a challenge. I challenge management, I challenge those who deliver supervision, I challenge those at the highest governmental levels. What are you going to do to ensure that those who work with some of the most challenging people can be their best? Can be available? Can avoid operating on emotionally avoidant auto-pilot? Can be curious, can listen with empathy, can empower their service users? Tick boxes tell you nothing. Meaningful relationships can tell you everything, throughout the entire system. What are you doing to foster positive, constructive, open relationships everywhere?

And as with everything, while we might need change from the top, we can also instigate it from the bottom up. Our troubled hurting teens do not need a bunch of robot workers. What they need more than anything is someone who cares enough to be curious about them, to listen to them, to show them they are worth really knowing and to show them what a positive constructive relationship looks like. It is only by doing this that we will ever come to know what their issues are and what the right solution is for them. So we have to resist the auto-pilot and embrace relationship and emotional connection. They need it, and we need it too.

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