Communication and Conflict in the Helping Professions


Within the Helping Professions I include the following: Social Workers, Housing Officers, Police Officers, Teachers, Noise Team officers and any agency officers that may be drawn into disputes between members of the public through their role.

Sometimes a dispute can start to involve the Helping Professional and their organisation directly. Often this is made more likely by the type of responses given to the members of the public who have contacted them because the responses have not been genuinely impartial and have been manifestations of the Rescuer Syndrome on a personal level by the responding professional.

This will often have been reinforced by the Rescuer Syndrome being encouraged through the organisation's procedures and 'mind-set'.

Many who work in the Helping Professions talk of the stress of dealing with others' day to day problems and often the most stressful situations are those they can't 'solve' and yet may seem trivial. These are the situations that tend to become chronic and long term.

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In almost all of these situations the very reason they have become entrenched and long term and chronic is because the response to the individuals involved has been one of trying to solve their problem for them.

In almost all of these situations they are completely outside of the remit of the Helping Profession that has been contacted and yet this has not been clarified with those who have the difficulties. As a result, a false expectation has been (self) created by the agency through the responses of the Helping Professional representing them that they can solve the problem.

In such cases it may often be that the member of the public seeking help is seen as 'incapable' or 'a pain' or a constant complainer.

Zen in the Art of Helping (Arkana) is an excellent book which is a deep personal exploration of the challenges involved in working in the Helping Professions, drawing upon Buddhist insights to reflect upon the experience.

Often the Helping Professional does not recognise that their own contribution has been a major cause of the situation becoming chronic.

This is one of the ways in which the Rescuer Syndrome has been manifested and various of the aspects of Effective Communication and Conflict Resolution described on this site have not been practiced or taken into consideration.

Helping Professions - having clear boundaries

This is not a criticism of any individual that responds in this way. They are often expected to do so by the agency or organisation they work for through various procedures and structures that allow an easy blurring of the boundaries to what the agency is responsible for. 

One example is the kind of customer service requirement that effectively states 'If we can't find the answer for you immediately we will direct you to someone who can.' The caveat to this that says '.......and that person may sometimes be YOU!' is rarely stated and so the build up of expectation that the Police, the Local Authority, the Social Work team, the School Teachers and other staff etc. are responsible for finding a solution to any problem brought to their attention is created.

And so examples of the following kind are common forms of response given to members of the public because those who work in the Helping Professions are rarely, if ever, trained to respond in any other way:

A tenant calls a Housing Officer to say they are having difficulties with their neighbour over the behaviour of the neighbour’s children. On investigation it is found that no aspect of the Tenancy Agreement has been breached and there are no other forms of legislation found to be broken, and so the organisation’s responsibility to intervene officially ends.

However, there may be a wish to be supportive of the parties involved to some extent but it is important that this does not lead to partial actions for, or against, either party.

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For example, there may be a temptation to explain away the behaviour of the children:

‘It seems to be children just being children, they are being high spirited in the way that kids are.’

This risks the complainant feeling their complaint is being belittled or that the responding officer is not taking them seriously and is ‘taking the side’ of the neighbour against them by ‘explaining away’ the thing they are complaining about.

The temptation to do this can arise from a personal desire on the part of the Housing Officer to placate the person or try to ‘smooth things over’, but in doing so there is a risk of antagonising the situation and causing a reaction to the officer and hence the organisation.

In this way the officer and the organisation become part of the dispute. By giving an opinion or making a suggestion or giving advice, they are implying that an element of ownership of the situation lies with them. When it doesn't.

It is important therefore that an awareness of impartiality runs through all dealings by the organisation’s representatives, even, or perhaps, particularly where there is no evidence of a breach of Tenancy Agreement.

This is analogous to situations encountered in all of the Helping Professions where a response intended to 'solve' the problem actually leads to the agency or organisation becoming part of the problem.

The very act of trying to solve it implies to the member of the public bringing the problem to the agency that it is now the agency's responsibility, as they have already started to create answers.


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Helping Professions - skills that support empowerment

In order to maximise the agency's impartiality there are practices which can be used that enable this to be achieved more effectively. They are: 

Questions

- not suggestions (or advice)
Acknowledgement - not opinions

Instead of advising people what to do about such problems, for example, ‘You could try going out when the children are playing.’ or giving opinions: ‘It will probably all blow over when the days draw in, it’s just summer liveliness’, the responses can be geared more towards the party engaging in resolving the situation themselves. 

This can include: 

  • Clarifying that the situation is not deemed to be a breach of Tenancy (in the above example)or other legislation and that no action will be taken, to assert the organisation’s position on the situation. This establishes that responsibility for resolving the situation lies with the parties concerned. 
  • Informing the party or parties that mediation is available to them (if it is!) to try to resolve the situation if they wish to try this. 
  • If they do not wish to try it, a re-assertion that the organisation does not have a role to play in resolving the situation as no evidence of tenancy breach is present. 

If an individual representing a Helping Profession is still to support those who come to them regarding a dispute or other difficulty, while at the same time asserting the boundaries to their role and that of the agency they represent, the following are examples of responses they can give:

Questions - not suggestions 

What is it about the children’s behaviour that upsets you?

What communication have you had with your neighbour about it? 

Note: This is not the same as ‘Have you tried speaking to your neighbour?’ which is basically a suggestion or advice and risks giving a sense of partiality to the person complaining.

It is also prone to receiving a response such as ‘You can’t talk to them I’ve tried and they are just rude’ etc. leading to another dead end and the likelihood that the respondent will be awaiting another 'clever idea' from the Helping Professional rather than looking to themselves for answers.

Also note that the important difference between the questions is that the impartial ones are open questions, while the partial ones are closed questions.

What would you see as a way for the situation to change?

All of these questions aim to begin a process through which the party can review what is happening and how it is affecting them and what they would like to change. It is important that at any time the answers are a request or demand for the organisation or agency to take action it is re-emphasised that there is no basis for this and that to do so would be inappropriate. This reinforces the point that the responsibility for resolving the situation lies with the party / parties themselves.

While there is no guarantee that the questions above are going to leave the party satisfied, they are at no point trying to take ownership of the problem away from them, which is necessary and appropriate given that the organisation has no role to play in it.

Advice such as ‘Have you tried speaking to the party?’ implies that the officer responding is trying to provide answers to the problem as if they are responsible for resolving it, which is unnecessary and inappropriate.

Some people say that not to take some role is uncaring of the organisation or is not supportive of those who come to them. The point is that the organisation and the individual representing them is not being supportive or caring, however well meaning, by making suggestions or giving advice in situations where they have no defined professional role to play:

  • They are increasing the likelihood of those involved developing an unnecessary and inappropriate dependence on the Helping Profession contacted. Is that being supportive and caring?
  • They are at risk of acting in a way that is entirely inappropriate, and possibly beyond their powers, in which case there may be legal implications.
  • They are at risk of escalating the dispute by 'upping the ante' if they do anything that is partial and in favour of one party - and therefore against the other party - where there is no legal basis to do so.
  • They are using resources allocated for use in situations defined by the legislation and other procedures relevant to their role, for situations that are not within that definition. Hence they are wasting resources which should be focused on more serious situations, ie. those that their role requires them to act in.
  • They are effectively creating a precedent to act in any situation.

No wonder they are stressed out!


Acknowledgement - not opinions:

The use of summaries of what a party has said provide an acknowledgement of their concerns - as long as the summary does not include opinions about what they have said.

For example: ‘Ok, Mr Jones, you’ve said that the children’s ball keeps coming over the fence and you are worried that they may break the fence if they continue’

This simply acknowledges that the officer has heard the concerns of the tenant but has not expressed an opinion such as ‘mmmm that sounds a bit worrying’or solutions such as ‘Perhaps there’s a different way they can get through to get to the ball?’.

When agencies such as the Police and Local authority and other organisations that make up the Helping Professions are not clear about the boundaries to their roles, and this is reflected in the responses of the individuals who represent them, the following will result:

  • There will rarely be any possibility of effective conflict resolution.
  • There will always be an extremely high level of stress amongst those Helping Professionals.
  • There will be a very large drain on the agency's resources - both material and human.

Awareness of both the organisation's boundaries and the Helping Professional's personal boundaries combine to provide an effective response to those who have difficulties that are not within the remit of the agency.

This sort of sounds obvious, but the lack of clarity over these boundaries is an enormous source of stress and wasted resources within the Helping Professions and a major cause of unnecessary dependence by members of the public on agencies to resolve their personal disputes for them.

Something they will never be able to do. 

Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.

Train to be a Mediator in London, UK with CAOS Conflict Management.


Are you experiencing difficulties communicating with someone? Perhaps at work with your boss, or your colleagues, or at home with your partner, children or other family members?

Is there an unresolved conflict that you are struggling with?

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Some recent feedback on The Guide:

Dear Alan - I recently purchased The Guide which I think is excellent and highly useful in a personal and professional context. I am a teacher with the Skills Institute in Tasmania and I'm about to roll out communication training in Tasmania's only youth detention facility. I have an enormous amount of material regarding communication but none as succinct or as user-friendly as what you have developed.

Clare Thompson
Teacher-Human Services Skills Institute - Tasmania


Some more comments about this site.....

Hi Alan

It is refreshing to find reading material that informs and inspires and can provide a good resource for small organisations such as ours.

Anne Johnston - The Shropshire Housing Alliance Mediation Service


I did a 1 hour workshop where I presented your Facts and Feelings Listening Exercise. We learned so much about how we listen and the consequences of not listening well that I was asked to purchase your book and have another Listening Meeting.

My team just launched a project that could have whipped the team members and executives into a tremendous conflict. I required everyone to follow your rules for listening and it has been the best implementation we have had in 10years.

Thank you for your generous and comprehensive communications and conflict resolution information.

Angela - Information Technology & Systems VP


'What is a Bully?' Comment on article by Alan which was published on the Mediate.com website

Thank you SO MUCH for this article! It brings forward some very key points about the phenomenon of "bullying" which I have been pondering for some while. Among others, asking to what extent can/should the person on the receiving end of the bullying/perceived to be bullying take responsibility/initiate steps to shift the paradigm? How can this happen without implying that the recipient is somehow responsible for the bullying behavior?

To a certain extent the steps you suggest point to the strategies of NonViolent Communication: Observe and simply describe the behavior, understand and honor your own feelings and needs in the situation, and take responsibility for meeting them by making requests to change the situation.

There has been a significant upsurge of email traffic about bullying in the last year among the members of the Int'l. Ombudsman's Association (principally the academic sector). Much of the exchange, in my view, has tended to favor the stance of "recipient of the behavior as victim," without agency to change the situation, thereby perpetuating the problem and doing a disservice to all. I will be forwarding this article to my colleagues to spice up the conversation!

Laurie McCann, Campus Ombuds, Univ Calif Santa Cruz