As I was listening to Perdita Felicien’s inspiring keynote address during Week 2 of CERIC’s recent Cannexus conference, I was intrigued by her comment that world champions are fearless, dogged and resilient, and the connection she made between those characteristics and career practitioners. But then she asked a question that really struck me: Can you be those things in your darkest hours?
As she noted, it is easy to show fearlessness, doggedness and resilience when things are going well – and quite another when times are tough. In our helping roles, we have all found ourselves in difficult situations with clients: clients may be resisting the helping process, the strategies we have been trying might not seem to be working with them or maybe their situation is so difficult that we feel like there is just not much we can do to help them. When we are faced with these difficulties, we tend to believe that we are failing our clients, and that can feel very discouraging.
Kris Magnusson is the author of the recently released book Career Helping: Harnessing Perspective and Emotion in Everyday Practice, published by Septembre éditeur.
In my Cannexus presentation, I focused on how client perceptions and emotions are inextricably linked, and when taken together, they can be filters that distort even the best information. In some cases, the filtering effects of perception and emotion can prevent information from even registering with clients. I referred to the often-unacknowledged presence of client emotion as the “elephant in the room” – we know that emotions are present, but we tiptoe around them as if they are not there. When we don’t acknowledge the presence of emotions, their power as distorting filters increases, and it becomes much harder to help the client engage in positive change.
After the presentation, several people told me they were reminded that they need to be more aware of how their own emotions and perceptions may be filters when they are working with their clients. If, as I believe, client emotion is an under-acknowledged aspect of career interventions, then is it possible that helper emotion is even less acknowledged? We hear frequent encouragement for practitioners to engage in self-care, but it seems we are less attentive to the moment-to-moment interactions we have when we are working with another person. Our emotions can be the second elephant in the room.
“When we don’t acknowledge the presence of emotions, their power as distorting filters increases, and it becomes much harder to help the client engage in positive change.”
Some of our emotions may be temporal or situational; they arise in response to something we are experiencing in the moment. We might have just received an encouraging e-mail about the progress of another client, and we feel buoyed by their success. We may have just come from a meeting where we were told that the operating grant our agency applied for had been turned down, and we feel worried about how we will be able to continue offering services. While such emotions may be fleeting, they will have an impact on how we engage with our next client.
Other emotions may be related to the stage of our interaction with a client. When a client first walks in the door, we may feel some apprehension, even if we have done this a thousand times before. Each new client brings a new story and a new challenge, and it is entirely sensible that helpers might wonder how or if they can be helpful. But, girded by our faith in good process, we move forward with excitement, and it is easy to see the potential for our clients. As the intervention progresses, we may experience a muted version of the full Menninger Morale Curve of anxiety, disappointment, frustration and depression, before we are able to get back on track with some innovative engagement exercise and establish some concrete action plans (Menninger, 1988).
Here are some takeaways to help career professionals navigate their own emotions in a helping situation:
- Recognizing and acknowledging emotion – either our client’s or our own – has the impact of removing the distorting effect that emotions can have on thinking processes. Our goal is not to be free from emotions, but rather to be free from their potentially distorting effects.
- We can harness our own emotion to help move a client forward. Letting them know when we are excited, encouraged or intrigued can be very motivating for them; letting them know when we share their disappointment or frustration with their situations can be validating. The key is that what we choose to share is authentic, and that it is only used when we think that it will be of help to the client.
- Attending to the source of our emotion can provide powerful clues about where we are at in our intervention with our clients. Our own emotions can provide clues about what next actions we can take to better help our client.
- It is difficult to think of creative engagement strategies when you are most in need of them – times when you or your client are feeling frustrated or depressed during the helping process. Have a few handy engagement strategies in your helper’s tool kit that you can bring out when your creative juices are most likely to fail you.
- Don’t let fear of failure at using a new engagement strategy slow you down. Clients are likely in the place that they are in because nothing else has worked for them yet, and they will be amazingly tolerant of anything you do to try to help them. Even a discussion of why something did not work can be a powerful and effective engagement strategy, as long as it is used to inform the next thing you try to do together.
Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler had a powerful phrase that has stuck with me throughout my career. When facing challenges, Adler claimed that the greatest thing we can possess is the courage to be imperfect. We tend to set very high – often unrealistically high – expectations of ourselves, and then figuratively beat ourselves up when we fail to meet those expectations. It takes courage to engage in a helping encounter, especially when things are difficult. If we acknowledge that the path to helping clients is often unclear, we can be both resilient and confident that our work with them will help them take steps toward crafting a preferred future.
Menninger, W.W. (1988). Adaptation and morale: Predictable responses to life change. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 52, 198-210.