When you meet with someone for the first time, one of the best things you can do as an initial step is set yourself a goal of establishing trust. Yes you likely have an agenda in mind of assisting this person move from being dependent on Social Assistance or Welfare to financial independence. However, recognize that while this might be the ultimate goal, you’ve got to get at where they are now on that path to the goal; there could well be several steps they need to take before that final achievement.
This is the dilemma facing so many Caseworkers in the Social Services system; with sizable caseloads and seeing people infrequently, how does not take the limited time they have and just rush full speed at the end goal? After all, there’s administrative paperwork to complete that fulfills legislative requirements to be done which also restricts the time available to discuss employment. Given the meeting might be an hour maximum, there’s not much time to do what needs doing.
One of your first goals should be to find out what’s going on from the person themselves. You can’t do this well if you’re the one doing most of the talking, and you can’t do it at all if you’ve got this preconceived plan on what you’ll talk about and what you’ll get done. My suggestion is in setting up the meeting, invite the person to come ready to initially talk about whatever is on their mind. What would they like to talk about or ask? Even when you’re the one requesting the meeting, you can start by turning away from your computer monitor, giving them your full attention and asking.
When you immediately shift the focus to what they want to talk about, what’s important to them in that moment, you might surprise them. After all, they may be more accustomed to having past meetings driven entirely by the Caseworkers they’ve previously met with. While they might be expecting to sign some papers, talk about their job search and do it all only to remain eligible to get financial help, they really might not think you care to hear what’s going on. In fact, they could be quite suspicious; unsure if they could trust you enough to tell you their truths for fear of having their money put on hold.
Ask yourself this however; isn’t it preferable that you find out what barriers this person is really experiencing that are preventing them from focusing on their job search? As many of us know, there’s often multiple things going on. In addition to diminished self-esteem and a lack of confidence, the person might have a poor landlord their dealing with, no funds to keep their phone activated, issues of isolation from family, past or present abuse and of course transportation problems. Expecting such a person to, ‘get serious and get a job’ is going to fall on deaf ears. No that’s not true… they’ll hear that message and tell you what they know you want to hear but not really do what you believe they’ll do – they can’t!
Step 1 really is building trust. Create the climate where the person feels they can share honestly how they feel, what they cope with daily and where their priorities are and you’re on the way to truly helping. Now be cautioned, you’ll need to use your ears more than your mouth and listen to them. When you hear of their struggles and challenges, you could really be helpful by labelling the skills you hear them describe. They might tell you they’ve been emotionally and physically taken advantage of since they were a teenager, they held down a job for 4 years before losing it when they had to move to get away from their abusive partner, and since relocating to their present apartment they haven’t met any friends and their new landlord keeps putting off needed repairs. Maybe what you hear is resiliency and courage.
Resist the urge to fix the problems right away. Have you heard this before? There’s a good reason for this advice. So often in the role of Helpers we start thinking of the solutions while the person is still sharing their problems. We want to fix what’s wrong; just as we would if we were parents hearing our children tell us their struggles. But you’re not a parent in this case. You risk losing the opportunity to forge a true connection if you rush to solve the problems you hear. You also reinforce their dependency on others to solve their problems instead of letting them arrive at the solutions themselves and reinforcing their belief in their own abilities to do so in the future.
Now I don’t suggest you hold back on sharing possible solutions. Sure, share your resources and places to get the help they could use. As for a job, sure it might be their goal. However, to get AND KEEP a good job, they may need to discuss some things first that increase their chances of long-term success. Giving them the green light to focus on other things and have your support might be the best thing you can do for this person at this moment and remove the job search need entirely for a period.
This is their life journey. You and I? We’re just some of the good people they meet along the way who are privileged to be included.