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    The Language of Effective Social Work

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    I find it fascinating that we, as social workers, proclaim we want to help people make better choices and choose healthier behaviors on their own, but then we speak to them as though they don’t have any power. In the past, I have noticed some of my colleagues experience trouble connecting with those we serve due to their language. The language portrayed two completely false ideas as if it was the honest truth such as our clients had no options/say-so in their own lives or we are psychic and know exactly what was going to happen to them at any given moment in the future.

    We tell them that they have to do something or need to be somewhere. As Morgan Freeman/Joe Clark proclaimed in the movie Lean on Me, “I don’t have to do nothin’ but stay [insert your race here] and die!” Some of us may still talk to our clients in the exact same way. Whatever we choose to call this pattern of speech  ‘aggressive’, ‘controlling’, even ‘male’, I’ve found that I am much more successful and a more effective practitioner (and a healthier wife, sibling, child, friend, and co-worker) when I lean towards making a few simple changes in the way I talk to others.

    Try to Avoid Telling People What They Can and Can’t Do

    notlisteningDoes anyone have to go to treatment? No.  Do people need counseling? Not at all.

    However, these things could be very helpful, may have some benefit, and could help people achieve their goals in life.Can you see the difference between “You have to go to treatment or you’ll never get better” and “You might want to consider entering treatment. I’ve seen it help a lot of people get their lives back on track.”?Let’s listen to ourselves, our clients, and our peers for the following phrases in bold, and see if we can start using (and encouraging others to use) the words and phrases in italics:

    You have to   –   You might like to…, You might want to consider…

    She should   –   It might have been more helpful to…, Maybe a better choice would have been…

    You can’t   –   You might run into some problems if you…, I haven’t seen people be very successful when they…

    I know   –   I get the impression that…, It seems as though…, I can understand if…

    He always   –   I often see him…, I’ve noticed that he usually…, I can’t remember a time when he didn’t…

    Addicts never   –   People suffering from an addiction often don’t…, Alcoholics generally don’t…

    I’ve especially noticed a resistance to more aggressive language from people who have issues with authority figures, due to their past experiences with them. However, when we interact with them with an attitude that expresses the fact that they have all the power, and every right, in the world to get up and walk out our door, they seem to feel less of an urge to actually do that. They don’t have an overly controlling figure to “rebel” against. Think about how it takes two to tango, just like it takes two to argue. Let’s try to steer clear of being that opposing force that they use to push themselves away from us and, in many cases, a healthier lifestyle.

    Being someone that is there to help, versus someone who is there to control someone else’s life, can be really helpful in building stronger, more effective helping relationships with the people we assist. As a bonus, speaking in a less controlling manner to our spouses, family members, and co-workers can often have a similar effect. The relationship becomes more open, more relaxed, and people feel more comfortable sharing their problems (and successes) with us.

    Steer Clear of the Habit of Prophesizing

    I’ve found it helpful to avoid telling people what is going to happen to them. Sharing what I have seen or experienced in the past, or even giving them and idea of my fears for them should they make a certain choice is one thing. However, I’ve seen many a practitioner guarantee (they sometimes even literally use that word) that something catastrophic or fantastic is going to happen to someone if they make a certain choice.

    “If you don’t go to treatment, you’ll die.”

    “If you try to live independently, you’ll fail. Schizophrenics need assisted living–it’s a fact!”

    “If you stay in treatment for 30 days, you’ll live a happy, healthy rest of your life.”

    “If you don’t go to the therapy group for help, your wife’s gonna leave you–plain and simple.”

    “If you quit using heroin, you’re going to have so much more money!”

    “You don’t stand a chance without Narcotics Anonymous.”

    “If you start a business, you’ll just shoot all the profits up your arm.”

    While I understand that most of us have been in the field long enough to have seen multiple examples of people struggling with addiction after leaving treatment or having a hard time living independently with a mental illness, there are (many) exceptions to those situations. So, if we decide to essentially promise someone that something will happen, when we really have no way of knowing, the second that terrible thing doesn’t happen to them, or it doesn’t happen to someone who our client knows, we become somebody who has no credibility. It’s hard to trust somebody without credibility, so we have just severely injured our relationship with that person. Try using phrases like “I’ve never seen,” “It’s not impossible, however,” and “Feel free to try, but I’ve never heard of” in order to express humility. We can still give the person the caring warning and advice that we want to offer without delivering it like Ms. Cleo.

    Here are some tweaks to the above example sentences to make them more realistic:

    “I’ve seen lots of people avoid going to treatment and it often leads to them living a really hard, chaotic life, or even dying. I’d hate to see that happen to you.”

    “Trying to live independently can be hard for people who don’t have any mental health concerns. I’m worried about you wanting to live on your own, but let’s look at some ways we might be able to make that more feasible, such as hiring an aide to check in on you or getting you on some medications.”

    “Though there are no guarantees, I’ve seen people do a lot better in their recovery when they have some form of formal treatment.”

    “I know your wife threatened to leave if you didn’t get help, and I can’t predict what she’s going to do, but her and I both are encouraging you to attend a bipolar support group. Is not going really worth the possibility that she might actually divorce you?”

    “Stopping your heroin use can really increase the amount of money you have left to save or spend as you please.”

    “I’ve seen kicking a habit be a real struggle for some people, but they often seem to do a lot better when they have the support of the people at Narcotics Anonymous.”

    “It’s not impossible, however, I have witnessed several incidences in which people suffering from addiction who do actually gain a profit from running a business slip back into using because they have large sums of money that they’re handling on a daily basis.”

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    Tenesha Curtis is a Behavioral Health Trainer at a non-profit prevention agency and a Chemical Dependency Technician for a female recovery house for women on probation and parole since 2008. She also manages The MSSW, a blog on social work and human behavior.

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    What the Media Left Out About the Last Democratic Debate

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    Senator Kamala Harris.

    Senator Kamala Harris was without peer during the fourth Democratic presidential primary debate. In fact, it’s difficult for me to identify Sen. Harris’ strongest moments because she optimally accomplished so much with each statement. I think the quality of her performance Tuesday night calls for a point-by-point breakdown. So, I’ll try my best.

    First, a snapshot of her game: Kamala Harris achieved (and sustainably grounded) position as master of her domain. She scored efficiently. She argued elegantly. She empathized naturally. She outclassed all opponents through a sheer display of self-possession. Her touch and tact, sincerity and sophistication, reflected a clear, robust understanding of the complex situational dynamics at play. Successfully capitalizing on each opportunity, Sen. Harris occupied and punctuated her time cerebrally — and, she protected her time as well. Time and again, the poise and ease of her stage presence exampled presidential command.

    What stood out most in Sen. Harris’ opening statement was her facility in seamlessly and vividly connecting the dots of Donald Trump’s devastation. Moving from the great Maya Angelou’s perceptive insight about “listening to somebody when they tell you who they are the first time,” and Trump saying that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it to the democratic visions of America’s framers, Harris diagnosed the disease (Trump) and offered the right solution (checks and balances) in a context conducive for unity: “Our system of democracy.”

    Regardless of an individual’s background or ideological preferences, most Americans value our self-corrective democratic system of government. Also strong and cleanly executed was the way Sen. Harris noted, at the outset, how her experience as a progressive prosecutor uniquely positions her to read Trump like a children’s book: “I know a confession when I see one.”

    Harris’ second statement, once again, showed her to be not just the adult in the room, but a candidate fundamentally committed to fighting for the most vulnerable amongst us. Directly and poignantly, she issued perhaps the most imperative observation in the entire debate: “This is the sixth debate we have had in this presidential cycle and not nearly one word, with all of these discussions about health care, on women’s access to reproductive health care, which is under full-on attack in America today.”

    After the applause, Harris made no bones about getting to the heart of the matter. Her passionate, thoughtful expression embodied the frustration of women across America as well as her steadfast determination to resolve this crisis once elected.

    I can’t say that I’m surprised by this example of moral leadership, but I am very grateful.

    I also want to acknowledge Senator Cory Booker for accentuating and building on Senator Harris’ remarks by reminding us that “women should not be the only ones taking up this cause and this fight.”

    Back with more firepower, Harris, in all of her brilliance, took an abstract (relatively dry) question about a wealth tax and turned it into an incredibly powerful account that gripped me in a very personal way. She described how her mother would sit at the kitchen table, late at night, trying to figure out a way to provide for her daughters, and she spoke about fathers doing everything they could to support their families and meet the bills at the end of the month. It just so happens that the challenges Sen. Harris gave voice to encapsulate my own father’s experience through much of my life. What moved me most in that moment was the depth and calm of her concern. Her solicitude felt durable and unadulterated — like it could withstand the messiness of political conflict and the harshest reality of any setback that might come with being president.

    Her resolve gave me confidence as I marveled at the power of her light to uplift.

    It was at this point that I thought to myself, the moderators, just on the basis of her performance thus far, will have to find a way to prioritize her inclusion.

    Despite their failure, her performance only elevated. At her next opportunity, Sen. Harris exemplified peak preparedness, using feminine pronouns to capsulize a commander-in-chief’s responsibility to “concern herself with the security of our nation and homeland” before following through with a lucid, compact, and highly detailed answer that named names, delineated the most relevant ramifications, and specified her intention to “stop this madness,” under a Harris administration.

    Following that, Harris attained perfection, offering an impeccable response to Anderson Cooper’s gun control question about “enforcing a mandatory buyback.” She exhibited complete control in her ability to deliver a thorough, colorful, and well-paced answer without error. This response from Senator Harris belongs on any shortlist of captivating, exemplary presidential debate moments.

    With patient equipoise, Harris held her powder as a number of candidates bent over backwards to throw their hardest blows at Senator Elizabeth Warren. Once their energy was spent, Harris rose to the occasion with characteristic confidence and self-direction. “No, I don’t agree with that at all.” Harris proceeded to skillfully press Sen. Warren to agree that Trump’s twitter account should be suspended. Upon being interrupted, Senator Harris firmly (and appropriately) impressed her dominance: “I’m not finished.”

    With little recourse, Warren fumbled, scurried to evade the question, and barely escaped entrapment by way of moderator interference.

    In Harris’ penultimate declaration, she held forth assertively and decisively on reproductive rights, beginning, “My plan is – as follows…,” and ending, “It is her body. It is her right. It is her decision.” Put simply, Harris seized this opportunity to definitively declare her commitment to ensuring that all women have the right to determine what they do with their bodies, and explain precisely how she would enact such justice.

    To round out the night, Sen. Harris separated herself from the pack emphatically once more by answering the final question about friendships with political adversaries swiftly and without mishap. While every other candidate meandered and several appeared to be searching for an answer as they spoke, Harris replied immediately: Probably Rand Paul. What is more, she gracefully culminated her closing remarks with personal power and inspiration by telling her own story, and explaining that if Donald Trump had his way, her story would not be possible.

    Unfazed by bias and seemingly unbothered by every obstacle, Kamala Harris accoladed a feat of prowess for the history books. While I am not the least bit surprised, I am both proud and supremely delighted.

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    Kamala Harris is the Fighter Our Country Needs

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    U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) asks a question as U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

    Senator Kamala Harris has been at the top of her game over the last week. Leading the wave, Sen. Harris has been first, clear, compelling and unrelenting in condemning Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, William Barr, Mike Pompeo, and Rudy Giuliani. She has communicated her message versatilely, eloquently, and effectively. Speaking and tweeting with conviction, concision, discipline, and allure. One strong example:

    “Trump’s tweets about the whistleblower represent clear intent to harass, intimidate, or silence their voice. His blatant threats put people at risk—and our democracy in danger. His account must be suspended.”

    Another hard gem: “It’s been one year since the horrific, premeditated murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia. And Trump has yet to hold Saudi officials accountable. Unacceptable – America must make it clear that violence toward critics and the press won’t be tolerated.”

    Sen. Harris has praised distinguished Congresspersons Maxine Waters and Al Green for long opposing the grievous mistake of giving Donald Trump a millimeter. Sen. Harris has publicly given Republican Senator Chuck Grassley credit for supporting and defending the whistleblower. She did not hesitate to sincerely wish Senator Bernie Sanders a speedy recovery, commending also Sanders’ political toughness. She has sagaciously intensified the force of her presence in Iowa. She has expanded colorfully in Nevada and New Hampshire. She sustains a hard look at South Carolina.

    In her latest interviews, Sen. Harris has handled delicate matters with open, acute sensitivity as she has overpowered shade with the clarity and detail of her answers. It is as if Sen. Harris has chosen to step forward, and, standing straight and tall, say: I want you to hit me with your best shot. Please. She even wrote a letter to Jack Dorsey requesting that he consider suspending Donald Trump’s Twitter account. I clapped before chuckling. Then clapped some more. Perhaps Sen. Harris’ finest achievement of the last week, however, has been her comforting and entertaining demonstration of first-rate prosecutorial prowess.

    I mean, that video of her filleting William Barr warrants a parental advisory label – not for explicit content, but for the startling and just ferocity with which she slices Barr open like a cardboard box. Her interrogation of him is both ruthless and revealing. Yet what I admire most about her prosecutorial prowess is the brilliance it magnifies. With each question posed, we see that Sen. Harris understands precisely how to press, entrap, expose, and defeat.

    This week Senator Harris graces the cover of Time magazine, propounding her powerful case against four more years of Donald Trump. It is little wonder that critics are crawling out of the woodwork. Some should be stiff-armed. Others of these critics, such as Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan prod vaguely with slights and cavils and quibbles about Sen. Harris’ leadership that amount in the best case to indiscernible conclusions. I, for one, believe the Trump administration needs urgently to be subjected to the harsh punishment of a prosecutorial atmosphere. I also think that calling Donald Trump a screwball makes light of his cerebral defects and his vile bigotry.

    Other critics, like Dr. Jason Johnson at The Root, appear somewhat less substantive and consistent and tend to carp and grumble in the form of snarky, backhanded compliments about the efficacy with which Senator Harris has campaigned. More thoughtful critics – David Axelrod, for example – have put forth sensible observations that might be more useful if they were offered in the context of comparison. Put differently, what specific alternatives should Harris’ consider and why? I would further challenge Mr. Axelrod to specify who, if anyone, in the Democratic field is delivering well in those areas.

    Finally, we encounter seemingly naive detractors hardly worth validating. Those who ask Senator Harris tougher questions than they ask Senator Warren, on purpose, before dodging public calls for an apology from the press. Lyz Lens deserves the feedback she has received. Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley should be less embarrassing.

    The rest I spare, for now.

    As we approach the fourth Democratic debate, look for Senator Harris to continue shining. We – me and all of my family – love to see it.

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    The Power of Language and Labels

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    A while ago I posted a meme which said, “Better to have lost in love than to live with a psycho for the rest of your life.”

    I liked it, of course, otherwise, I wouldn’t have posted it. Eleven others did too, some commenting on Facebook, “Amen to that,” and “Definitely!!”

    Then this: “Hate it. It’s beat up on people with mental illness time again. Ever had the amazing person you love tell you that they just can’t deal with your mental illness anymore? Our society is totally phobic about people with mental illness having intimate relationships.”

    Woah, that came a bit out of the blue. I hadn’t made the link between “person with a mental illness” and “psycho”, otherwise I wouldn’t have posted it. It didn’t say, “Better to have lost in love than to live with a person with a mental illness for the rest of your life.” I had linked “psycho” with the often weird, unspoken assumptions people make when in relationships, which have kept me out of long-term relationships all my life.

    It made me think, though. Suppose it had read, “Better to have lost in love than to live with an idiot for the rest of your life.” Would that have been a slight against people experiencing unique learning function?

    Probably a more accurate meme would have been, “Better to have lost in love than to live with an arsehole for the rest of your life.” But that’s not what the image said.

    For the record, I have had someone I loved tell me he couldn’t cope with my unique physical function anymore. It was hard to hear, but ultimately he was the one who lost out. And I know intuitively many would-be lovers haven’t even gone there — again, their loss and my gain, because why would I want to be with anyone so closed-minded?

    The power we let labels have over us can be overwhelming. If I had a dollar for every time a person called someone a “spaz” in my presence, I’d be wealthy. If I got offended because “spaz” is a shortened version of “spastic”, which is one of my diagnoses, and I got another dollar for that, well — I’d be angrily living in the Bahamas.

    I think the evolution of language — and the generalization of words like, “gay,” “spaz,” “idiot” and “psycho” — creates the opportunity for them to lose their charge and liberate us from their stigma. By allowing them to continue having power over us, though, we re-traumatize ourselves every time we hear them. Words are symbols and they change meaning over time and in different contexts.

    I celebrate that “gay” means “not for me” rather than “fag”; that “spaz” means “over-reacting”, not “crippled”; that “idiot” means “unthinking”, not “retarded”; and that “psycho” means “someone with weird, unspoken assumptions”, not “a crazy person”.

    By letting words change meaning for us, we are redefining diversity and creating social change. It’s not a case of, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” It’s recognizing that, unless someone is looking directly at us menacingly, calling us gay, spaz, idiot or psycho, we’re not in their minds — they’ve moved on.

    Maybe it’s useful for us to move on with them?

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