Are you experiencing dissatisfaction with your families’ stagnation or relapse? It is so easy to get frustrated and overwhelmed when you are doing everything You know to do to help someone achieve their goals but are seeing little success. You have been working with Ms. Jones for six months. She is pleasant and cooperative with you at every visit. However, she is not progressing at all in the goals mutually set by the service planning team. You are beginning to wonder what is going on. She agrees with you about her need for these services, but has excuses each time she misses an appointment or doesn’t follow through with an action step. As the pattern continues, you start to feel ambivalence towards Ms. Jones. You might have even verbalized to your supervisor your doubts that she even wants the change.
I know because I have been there many times. I had to start looking inward. Was I missing something? What responsibility was I taking in the break down of the relationship? So I would pose the question to you. Have you stopped to wonder if Ms. Jones feels truly engaged with you?
Engagement is a word used a lot by social work experts. Everyone agrees that it is a critical tool, if you will, in the social worker’s tool box. Engagement is the master key that unlocks the door to building rapport, establishing trust and creating the collaborative relationship that must exist for families to progress towards lasting change. But what is Engagement? Can it be taught? Why does it seem to be missing in so many of our worker/client interactions?
Some people confuse engagement with empathy. Empathy is your internal pathway to connection: trying to see through their eyes: mentally walking a mile in their shoes to gain a better understanding of their situation. Engagement is the external manifestation of that empathy demonstrated through your words, tone and actions. Empathy drives engagement and helps to forge external connections.
So the question, “can engagement be taught” should really be “Can empathy be taught?” I have heard varying opinions. Some present that you are either empathetic or you are not. However, many social work experts report that empathy is a choice. Therefore workers can be taught to make the choice of empathy over pity, blame, judgement or even sympathy. Social service agencies do a good job teaching staff about the importance of engagement and forging connections, but often leave out the most basic ingredient for learning engagement, which is teaching social workers how to make the choice of empathy and how to utilize empathy to create engagement.
I have never met a social worker who was not committed to their families and willing to do what ever it takes to help them become successful. Choosing to utilize empathy is a powerful skill, but I must warn you. There comes a price with choosing empathy: Vulnerability. The very choice of empathizing with someone means reaching into your own soul to find those moments in your life where you felt overwhelmed, grief, pain or anger over a situation or event. Remembering those moments and those feelings helps you to better understand what your client is feeling and to begin to make that engagement connection. This vulnerability can be uncomfortable for social workers. Also many of us have been taught that being vulnerable means being weak. Therefore, they choose (consciously or unconsciously) to skip the engagement and go straight for the helping (“fixing” )the surface issues.
When I think of vulnerability, I dont think of weakness. Sometimes it takes a very strong person to allow themselves to be vulnerable. I think of vulnerability as being open and exposed to the real truth instead of closed off for self protection.
Think about a healthy relationship that you have: that friend who is most dear to your heart. I have a friend I will call Jill. We have been friends for a very long time and she knows me well. She has no problem calling me out when she knows I am acting out of character. It is because of the connection and trust we have that I can hear her and accept her feedback. That connection began to deepen only as we became more open and vulnerable and allowing each other into those parts of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs that we hide from the outside world. And it took time. Engagement is not an instantaneous outcome but one that is ongoing and progressive with consistency of words and actions.
Vulnerability goes both ways, you see. While you are attempting to engage and empathize with your client, they are also feeling vulnerable and exposed by their very interaction with you. If they do not feel safe, if they do not feel trust, you will not be able to truly know The truth of their life. You will only see The truth they allow you to see. This brings us back to Ms. Jones. I challenge you to examine if the reason there is no progress with her is because she does not feel engaged. The choice is theirs to open up or remained closed. That choice is often based on your skills in engagement.
Engagement is an ongoing outcome of empathy, honesty, sincerity and genuiness. I encourage you to take each new client at face value and meet them where they are. Exercise empathy. Allow yourself the vulnerability of tapping into those feelings. The connection that you start to build could be the spark that lights the fuse for understanding, motivation and change.