Motivational Interviewing: Establishing A Tone Of Trust

One thing I’m extremely thankful for is that I’ve never lost the respect for everyone I meet and that each person who comes to me for help is unique. Every person has their own unique back story, and even if I were to think it sounds remarkably like others I’ve heard, I know I’ve never heard this back story from the person telling it to me now. Remembering to listen with full attention to the person before me is critical if I’m going to create a trusting climate where they feel safe enough to open up and tell me the important things that lay deeper than the surface stuff.

A poor Employment Counsellor – and yes poor examples exist in my field just as there are in any group of people – will neglect to fully listen. One of the most attractive traps one can fall into is to hear only enough from the person you’re helping to figuratively lump them in with others with similar stories. When doing this, your active listening stops, and your mind starts perusing your ready-made solutions that worked in the past, and you pull out solution number 4 and present it as the panacea to solve all this person’s troubles. “I have the perfect answer for you! Just follow the steps of my plan here and you’ll reach the end goal. I’m so happy to have helped!”

That’s just not going to work. What’s more, the person before you is intelligent enough to know you’ve tuned them out and you’re not really engaged with their unique situation. In short, they feel you don’t really understand because you didn’t hear them out; and they’re right.

A situation like this was shared with me just yesterday when a colleague consulted with me about someone she was working with. The fellow has a degree in Economics and some Employment Counsellor in another agency advised him to go after one of the job postings she had for a Restaurant Server. He felt shut down, unheard, misread and told her as much; she branded him a problem client.

Listening sounds like one of the easiest things to do; our ears pick up sounds without us having to turn hearing on and off, so we assume what we hear is 100% of what the person is saying when in fact we don’t. There are techniques like paraphrasing and saying things like, “Tell me more about that” which are designed to both acknowledge for the person that they were heard, and communicate a genuine want to hear more about something. Eye contact is critical too. I mean, how do you feel yourself when someone you’re speaking to breaks that eye contact and looks to your right or left as if something more interesting just happened behind you. You feel that connection is broken.

Have you ever considered your eye contact is one of the strongest ways to forge a bond? All those poets and authors who talked about seeing someone’s soul through their eyes; they were on to something there and they understood. If you want to make a subtle change that requires little effort but at the same time make a huge impact on those you counsel, work on maintaining eye contact. Don’t go for the beady-eyed, burn-through-your-skull kind of freakish look; that only scares others into thinking you’re getting kind of scary.

Direct eye contact that communicates enthusiasm for what this person has to share is what you’re after. From time to time in the conversation you’ll want to speak in a quiet voice that communicates concern and strong interest, such as when they relate something unpleasant. When they share something lighter or amusing, it’s okay to reflect warmth, smile, laugh along with them and that’s the moment to take that look away. Humour is essential to break tension, offer a break between heavy topics, and release some tension.

Of course what all this is really doing is continuing to build a trusting climate between you and this person before you. It is a huge mistake I think to start your meeting off with a statement that says, “We’ve only got 60 minutes to do your résumé so let’s dive right in – where did you work last and why aren’t you there now?” This kind of opening does set the tone that this is a business meeting with a clear goal, but it also communicates your time is more valuable than they are. All you’re going to get now is dates, past jobs and education. All the nuances of why they moved, what they found pleasing, what they want to avoid, where they feel most comfortable or most vulnerable; you’ve shut that down with your opening salvo.

The unfortunate message they receive is that whatever you’re doing in 60 minutes trumps your time with them now. Whether it’s your lunch or morning break, another client squeezed in to your schedule etc. they don’t really care, but they only have time now to do a token resume. The ironic thing? 60 minutes might be the same time you’d need to do a superior job that meets their needs and gets the document finished had you started by thanking them for the opportunity of meeting them and inviting them to share openly and honestly throughout your meeting. Some open-ended questions might set the tone of trust.

Challenge yourself; perhaps today – listen like you’ve never heard the story you’re hearing now; because you haven’t.


She Might Be Someone You Know

There’s a lot to unpack, note and commend in her story.

Here’s the quick summary, name withheld. Woman leaves Lebanon with her husband, leaving behind 5 siblings along with her mom and dad; a close and loving family. Arriving in Canada, she is pregnant and speaks two languages, neither one of which is English. She knows no one beyond her husband in this new land, and soon finds that things are changing.

Here in Canada, she not only knows no one, she’s not ‘allowed’ to meet new people; and whereas in Lebanon she held a job as a Childcare provider complete with a College Diploma, here it’s pointless because she’s entirely supported by her husband. After the child turns two, he walks out, leaving her with no income, no friends, no job, no idea of where she stands financially, and no prospects.

She is well aware of other women who like her ended up being divorced here in Canada and in each case they had returned to their families in Lebanon. Her choice however has been to stay in Canada to give her son – now 13 years-old with a better future; putting his future ahead of her own wish to be reunited with her family.

So that’s it in a nutshell. What I learned beyond this bare-bones story is that in the 11 years since the husband walked out, she took the initiative to enrol in English as a Second Language classes, and now has full command of a third language. She’s also visited and continuously makes use of a Welcome Centre to learn about programs and services to improve her situation. Her son is still completely in the dark about their status as Social Assistance recipients. She doesn’t want to burden him with that knowledge and have him feel shame and embarrassment. When I heard her tell me this I wanted to tell her that she should trust his judgement and he might just surprise her with his understanding and respect for her in spite of being  on social assistance, but I kept silent as that’s not call to say so.

I then asked her a question which brought her to a full stop and tears to her eyes – although it was not my intention to do so. I asked, “So what do you do that’s just for you, not your son – just you?” Not surprisingly she said, “Nothing.” Now why you might wonder is this not a surprise to me? Well, it’s been my experience that many women who have been isolated by their partners are entirely devoted to their children; their children being everything that they live for. There is often nothing they do for themselves because any extra income goes to extra-curricular activities that the children are involved with. Sure enough, soccer and buying the things that teenage boys want and/or need to be socially ‘in’ consumes these things. Reading for pleasure isn’t something she does but she reads a lot of legal papers, government memo’s, social assistance letters etc. – and all of these she hides from the eyes of her son lest he pause to wonder if they are on welfare.

For a second time in our conversation I brought her to tears. You’d think I was going out of my way to do so! Such was not the case, but it happened. After hearing her story I said how much I admired what she’d accomplished on her own, getting established independent of her ex-husband, raising her child, committing to living in a country when all her family was back in Lebanon, learning about various services and what brought us together, her decision to attend an interview preparation workshop. Of course what I said that really got the tears flowing was that I wasn’t just proud of what she’d accomplished but that I was proud of her.

So why the tears? Years and years of being put down and told she’d never amount to anything; that she wasn’t important and no one would ever care whether she’d live or die hammered home low self-esteem. This you see is why I believe she doesn’t do anything just for herself – something that people with a healthy self-image regularly do. If you’ve been told you’re nothing and you’ve come to believe you’re nothing, then you do nothing that’s just for you; you don’t deserve it. Nonsense of course, but it takes a long, long time for some people to alter that belief system.

Apparently I am the first person in all the time she’s been in Canada who has said good things about her. That I felt, extremely humbling and even more a sad state of affairs. Mid-forties, in good shape, excellent attention to her appearance, a beautiful smile and equally good manners. A dedicated parent putting her child’s needs and happiness above her own.

Here’s another thing. Does she lay her burden on her parents back home in Lebanon with crying and how difficult life has been and continues to be? No. In fact, she’s no one to share with, no intimate friend to vent or confide in; all this bottled in and heaven only knows what else.

So the point? She’s not the only one. Be kind, be considerate, be above all compassionate and non-judgemental. You can bet that this woman’s story is playing out everywhere not just one isolated person I came into contact with.

“Depressed? Get In The Mood Will Ya?”

Easier said then done isn’t it? Do they really think it’s as easy as just deciding to change your mood and, “Shazam!” everything is changed? It doesn’t work this way; you know it and honestly they know it too. Oh perhaps you can make a fleeting and momentary change to whatever it is other people expect you to become, but really that change is superficial and short-lived.

Now we could be talking about all kinds of different situations here; anything from feeling depressed around Christmas time, feeling out of sorts on a double date or maybe even having little enthusiasm for looking seriously for work.

For many people who deal with anxiety and depression – or those dealing with some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, they are already aware they don’t quite fit in with those around them. This knowledge only seems to make things worse too because not only are they feeling the way they do to start with, they feel guilty if they are “ruining it for others” or ” being a downer”.  What they wouldn’t give to just seamlessly slide into the fun and be invisible rather than sticking out because of their singularity of mood. Yes but it isn’t that easy.

And the job interview? Well you can imagine your own feelings heading into a job interview can’t you? The pressure to perform; to come across as confident, positive, highly skilled and on top of that have the personality that’s going to be sought after by the best of employers. Well, add to this some level of additional anxiety, dread, fear and depression. Imagine how much psychological effort it’s going to take for anyone suffering in this way to perform well enough that the interviewer – a person specifically trained to read people – is going to pick you for the job.

The thing about mental illness, anxiety, depression,  etc. is that it’s not immediately obvious to the naked eye that there is something going on. I mean we see a broken arm, a wheelchair or a severe limp and we instinctively see there is an issue. Doors get opened, people say, “let me help you with that”, and folks ask with the best of intentions about your injury, how it happened etc.

A mental health issue however is almost invisible on the outside. Many people struggling with their mental health put on a brave face to those they see around them. They smile at the shopkeeper, put their lipstick on when heading out the door, adjust the tie properly and keep good hours at work. They are doing the best they can to give the appearance that they are ‘normal’; nothing is wrong – and nothing could be further than the truth. “Maybe if I just ride things out these feelings will go away and I don’t want to show any kind of weakness at work. I need my job.”

Now if you don’t have anxiety or depression it can be hard to truly be empathetic; to feel what it’s like for someone in that position. We can be sympathetic of course but truly empathetic? It’s hard for some of us to find experiences in our own lives that are similar enough to what this person is experiencing themselves so we can understand what it is like to be them. Saying, “Gee I know how you feel” or “I get it” might be well-intended but you may not know how they feel and quite honestly don’t get it.

Most of us are understanding too; well up to a point. Yes there does come a point for many if we’re honest, when despite all the empathy and understanding there is work to be done and picking up the work undone that someone else is responsible for starts to wear thin. Sometimes it’s grumbling around the office cooler, that penetrating look of puzzlement you spy on the face of a co-worker across the shop floor, or the confrontational but direct, “Hey, we’re all getting paid to do a job so get your act together!”

Well if it was easy to fix whatever someone is experiencing, the people themselves would do so don’t you think? And gladly!

Look I’m not expert in the field of mental health but I’ve spoken with numerous people who suffer from anxiety and depression. It helps them in their words to acknowledge what they are experiencing without laying on pity and repeatedly inquiring as to how they are doing. While sometimes you might think you’re helping by excusing them from some task at work or giving them extra things to do to keep them busy; the best thing you can do is actually ask them what they would find helpful. After all, the person is probably the expert when it comes to what they themselves would find helpful and therefore appreciate.

As I wrap up my piece, I’m wondering if this is where you yourself would like to jump in and comment on your own experience? Would you be willing to share what it’s been like for you going through your own anxiety and / or depression? Perhaps you work with someone like this and how does it affect your own job on a daily basis? What kind of accommodations have  you found work for both of you?

Someone might be reading this (you perhaps?) who could really benefit from your comments, your thoughts, your coping mechanisms and some encouragement.

Beware The Refugee Employment Backlash

Canada and other countries around the world are opening their borders to refugees in war-torn countries, especially those fleeing Syria at the moment.

When we hear of people dodging bullets and grenades, witnessing beheadings, beatings and human suffering, it’s not difficult to understand the urgency they feel in fleeing with their families to reach safety. If their situation was yours; with armed invaders going door to door down the street only 7 houses away, how much time would you take grabbing your precious belongings?

So on the one hand, I would like to think that most of us can understand the need to flee and find people and places willing to assist them. Our humanitarian response kicks in borne out of compassion for others experiencing unspeakable horrors.

There are of course concerns that have been raised however by those residing in the countries where the refugees are headed. Some are concerned about terrorists assimilating into the refugees and wrecking havoc in the future in our relatively peaceful societies. Others are concerned about the sheer numbers and the capacity of the receiving cities and communities to bear the costs of housing, feeding and supporting them. Then there are the people concerned about the ongoing financial drain they may be if they don’t get jobs.

I wonder if all the adult refugees had guaranteed employment within 3 months of arrival, would the outcries from some would subside or not? I’m sure a number of people would then start voicing outrage or at least great concern that these refugees were getting jobs ahead of the existing unemployed who are native to the countries the refugees enter.

It would appear this becomes an ethical dilemma; provide a safe haven for refugees and invest in the social costs out of humanitarian compassion, or close the borders and wish them the best as they fend for themselves elsewhere. Do we or do we not have a compassionate society?

On the local scene, we may in the very near future meet face-to-face with at least some of these refugees. They may be in unemployment lines, English as a Second Language classes, riding the buses to get to doctors reception rooms, they might be applying for welfare or indeed they may be sitting a row over from you in a religious synagogue or mosque. Do they look different from us? Sure they might. Rather than thinking the difference is something to be afraid of, maybe it’s an opportunity for us to learn from.

Now if they are here but beaten down, repulsed, spat upon, ignored, humiliated or any other words you might want to substitute, how does that help any of us? If you’re concern is that they are stealing jobs and services away from the homeless or unemployed that you see on the way to work now, do you honestly think there will come a time when all who are homeless are sheltered and all who are unemployed are working? A refugee who gets a job will become a taxpayer immediately and if they open a business will soon hire other unemployed people therefore multiplying that independence.

An unemployed person needs help to become employed no matter which country they were born in. We all come from somewhere. How we respond to a human crisis defines who we are; our prejudices, values and beliefs come out in the process. Do we only value diversity and inclusion when the people we are talking about are so small in numbers that our own way of living isn’t inconvenienced?

When you wed someone, you change and compromise as you learn about the other persons likes, dislikes, beliefs and values. Sometimes you argue, disagree, give in or hold out – but if you are wise you always listen. Welcoming refugees into our societies and our workplaces is no different. They will not only be trying to learn a new job and meet a new employers expectations, they will be trying to assimilate into an entirely new community and country. Expecting an entire conversion to our religion, our foods, our language, our way of doing things is hardly realistic. Were you and I to emigrate to another country, we may not full immerse ourselves in new ways and abandon what to us has been the norm. Even if we had every wish to do so, it would take time, and dirty looks, rude comments and hostile attitudes wouldn’t help.

I’ll point out that some (not all) of the unemployed screaming the loudest about losing jobs to refugees are the same people who refuse help with their resumes, turn down attending interview preparation classes, refuse work outside of a 4 block area and lose jobs due to poor attendance and adherence to company policies. Don’t believe me? Ask the employers and you’ll get examples where people sabotaged their own jobs through bad behaviour and poor judgement. If you are struggling to find employment at the present time, the refugee factor isn’t a current issue for you; find out what is and address it.

Let’s not get into who deserves a job more than someone else. The sooner we embrace change; in this case an influx of refugees into our communities who will need employment in order to be self-sufficient as soon as possible, the better for us as a collective, inclusive community.

Treat others as you’d like to be treated. We learned this in kindergarten; or rather, we heard the phrase. Whether we learned it or not is soon to be seen.


Compassion, Care And Cash? Why Not?

Yesterday I read with interest another article from someone working in the field of Social Services who was addressing the issues of both not receiving enough financial consideration, and the sacrifice of reduced family time due to the position she was in working in the field. Now to be clear, these are two issues and should be treated differently.

I remember when my wife and I were newlyweds we had a casual conversation one day that I have remembered ever since, and it was prompted because of her chosen line of work; child care. I said to her at the time (and this would be back around 1983), “You love what you’re doing and you do it well, so we both know we’ll never be rich, but that’s okay.” It went something like that. Child Care, like Social Services, doesn’t hold a reputation for high salaries. However, the people in these two professions deserve to be fairly paid for the work they do; work that is often undervalued and yet critical to a compassionate society.

Now within the field of Social Services, there are front-line positions that require people to have their Masters degrees, Bachelor degrees, Social Services Worker diplomas etc. Family Counsellors working for my employer must not only have their Masters degrees, but a minimum of 5 years work in the field as well. In other words, these people have acquired educational credentials that make them credible and incredible. Oh I know they voluntarily chose to pay for their education and pursue occupations that are emotionally draining. So why would they do it in the first place?

The simplistic answer of course is that there is some generally accepted motivation to help others, give of themselves in order to improve the lives of others and they derive satisfaction from seeing people’s lot in life improve because of their influence. Ironically, these are the same people who will often deflect praise for helping others actually make those very same achievements! “No, no, you deserve all the credit, I just listened”, or “No, no, I may have helped a little, but you made the decision to help yourself and took action to make things happen”.

But that’s the kind of people who get attracted to, and thrive in this field. So whether you are considering a career in social services, working currently in the field, or know someone who is, you should understand and probably do, that these people are the Caregivers, the Listeners, the Activists and Advocates, and Helpers. The very best have hearts with a large capacity to care for others, to nurture, to assist and to reach out. The only time they look down on people is when they are extending a hand to lift them up.

So when a person working in the field expresses doubts about being able to continue working in the field because of financial concerns, the field is in danger of losing not only a person, but a person who brings compassion, care, skills and expertise. And it isn’t only the field that suffers, it’s the many people who benefit from that one person.

Perhaps it’s a case of someone living above their means in the first place you say; having an overly large family, owning a second property, taking vacations, wanting money in the bank. Are these things really for someone in certain occupations? Let’s hope not. As stated, no one goes into Social Services for the lucrative salary and benefits, but a good quality of life should be possible and common.

Now as for not achieving that work/family balance, that’s going to differ for the people in the field as in any other. Some folks want the 8-4 or 9-5 life, and that’s possible in some but not all jobs in the field of Social Services. Those who work in group homes, residential treatment centres, who work on behalf of the homeless and youth on the streets will put in irregular hours to be sure. So maybe the answer lies not in choosing another field altogether but in a different capacity but still in the field.

What this boils down to is one’s priorities, values and decisions. It’s hard when your 18 or 20 to choose a career that you imagine will be a life-long decision. However, the field is broad, and if you keep learning and adapting, your diverse skills can take you to careers and positions you never even knew existed. And to be honest, there are positions still evolving, being thought about, and not on the radar screen yet, but they are coming nonetheless.

Social Work is a noble profession best carried out by those who are supportive, concerned, caring and giving. A strong desire to assist others motivates professionals in this field. Fair compensation for both these people is not just a good idea, it would seem essential if we want the very best people in the field when we go to access it for ourselves, our family members and friends.

Don’t we often seek out the very best care in a medical emergency? Why would it be any different in the field of Social Services? If you know someone in the field, consider supporting them when you hear about them requesting fair compensation, and at the very least, a wee bit of gratitude is what they need from time to time. (But they’ll tell you it isn’t necessary!)