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Share an experience of engaging a group in which finding common ground was chall

by | Sep 2, 2022 | Other | 0 comments

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Share an experience of engaging a group in which finding common ground was challenging.
What did you learn?
Coleman, M., & Agnew, J., Eds. (2018). Handbook on the geographies of power. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.
Menguito, L. M., & Teng-Calleja’ Ateneo, M. (2010). Bahala Na as an expression of the Filipino’s courage, hope, optimism, self-efficacy and search for the sacred, Philippine Journal of Psychology, 43(1), 1-26.
Rogers, C. (1957). The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21, 95-103.
Thomas, J., (2007). Rescuer patterns in the caring professions. Healthcare Counselling & Psychotherapy Journal, 7(4), 24-26.
Definitions of Engagement
True to our ongoing commitment to critically deconstructing the terms we use in social work, let’s explore the different domains of meaning that are implied in the term engagement. Probably the first thing we think of when we consider engagement is a professional skill to be learned during our education as social workers. We see engagement as the first stage in a social worker-client relationship. We understand that without successful engagement, the other stages (assessment, intervention, and evaluation) will not be successful either. And when we consider how to be effective at engagement, we think of interrelated components, such as those necessary conditions identified by Carl Rogers (1957) in his research-informed practice:
Congruence: the willingness to transparently relate to clients without hiding behind a professional or personal facade.
Unconditional positive regard: the therapist offers an acceptance and prizing for their client for who he or she is without conveying disapproving feelings, actions or characteristics and demonstrating a willingness to attentively listen without interruption, judgement or giving advice.
Empathy: the therapist communicates their desire to understand and appreciate their client’s perspective.
This view of engagement is not wrong. Without these conditions or skills, we can’t hope to connect with our clients and win their trust. But one crucial contribution of the field of social work is its recognition that all human relationships are embedded in unequal power dynamics and cultural frictions. We may do more harm than good if we blithely assume that our good will and lack of negative judgments are enough to telegraph to clients that we are “on their side.” Instead, we can think of engagement against the backdrop of specific histories of oppression. To do so we need learn these histories, to understand, for example, how redlining has prevented the healthy development of a certain Black neighborhood; or how the U.S. government’s placement of the Navajo reservation surrounding the Hopi mesas created longstanding conflicts over resources that diverted attention from a lack of federal investment in either tribe.
To clients, we often represent both threat and possibility. The institution of social work has always served two masters: the marginalized/vulnerable/colonized/oppressed/other, and the welfare state. On the one hand, the modern welfare state came about as an answer to the cruelties of unfettered market-based economics and cultural values favoring individual freedoms over mutual responsibilities. Social workers were instrumental in advocating for and designing the network of policies that theoretically act as a social safety net. Yet, as discussed in the first half of advanced practicum, social workers have also been the designated implementers of social policies that are at best compromises between said economics and values, and a more truly collective approach to our common welfare.
Why is all this macro-level background important to keep in mind when meeting a client? Because consciousness of your role within the larger historical context will help you have an accurate empathic understanding of the people you meet. Being aware of how they may feel about social services, which have the power to take and withhold and well as the power to give, will allow you to pick up on signals of ambivalence and distrust. These signals will often be indirect, because members of oppressed communities are in the unenviable position of having to present themselves as willing participants in services in order to gain the providers’ good will, even as they maintain vigilance against social control. In fact, it may be unethical to make too sharp a distinction between voluntary and involuntary services. Even when help-seeking is initiated by clients, there is a compulsory element. Often, they would not have taken the risks of engaging with an agency unless desperate, and their desperation is often the result of failures or deliberate policies of other institutions that look and sound a lot like yours, complete with acronyms and bland institutional architecture. Being aware of this potential backdrop can spur you to emphasize your humanity and the humanity of your client even more strongly, and to acknowledge the impersonal aspects of the agency and the help-seeking process.
Guiding Metaphors for Engagement
How we engage with clients is often based on guiding metaphors or schemas we carry around unconsciously. One assumptive framework that helpers often and mistakenly bring to engagement is the Drama Triangle of perpetrator, victim, and rescuer (Thomas, 2007). The social worker, is, of course, the rescuer in this framework. The perpetrator may be the client’s abusive partner, parent, or an organization that the client finds oppressive, like a payday lender or a megabank with unscrupulous practices. Yet the roles can easily change. If the social worker must report dangerous behavior and invoke social control, such as arrest, foster care, or involuntary psychiatric hospitalization, then suddenly the social worker goes from rescuer to perpetrator in the mind of the client. Or if the client, trying to safeguard their economic well-being or family unity, lies to the social worker about their income or parenting practices, then the social worker may feel manipulated and become the victim. It’s even possible that the client becomes the rescuer, as when an idealistic social worker is viewed as needing protection from grim realities or when the client feels obliged to educate the social worker about cultural truths.
What framework would be more helpful to effective engagement, and less likely to fall into a paradigm that replicates unhealthy power relationships? Think back to your immersion experience working with the hypothetical scenario involving Louisa and her aunt and uncle, as well as your supervisor. One quality that applies to every participant is in-betweenness. Louisa is caught in between her feelings for her boyfriend and her desire to not upset her relatives who are acting as foster parents. They are caught between their support for Louisa’s happiness and their fear for her safety. You are caught in the same ways and are also situated between Louisa and her aunt and uncle, as a mediator. Not only that, but you are in between your supervisor and your clients, seeking to explain your thinking to the former, get feedback, and translate that feedback into practice.
On a macro level, everyone involved is also in-between: powerful institutions like the educational system, the criminal justice system, the immigration and naturalization system and the child welfare system may all exert support and/or control over the lives of Louisa and her family. And don’t forget the institutions that govern you in this immersion experience: on a hypothetical level, your field agency, and on a real level, your university, which is in turn governed by the Council for Social Work Education.
Overwhelmed yet? And this is just a made-up situation! But fear not. The truth is, we have abundant experience at being in-between. Our lives are inherently made up of these mutually mediating relationships, where shifts in the needs and wants of the different stakeholders demand a response in real time. The more of this interdependence we recognize and understand, the more skillful our responses become. And the engagement framework of “being in-between” has several advantages over that of “Perpetrator-Victim-Rescuer.”
When we recognize that we are in-between, involved from the get-go in mediated relationships among self, clients, agency, organizations, and historic inequalities, then we communicate differently. We acknowledge our own role in mediating these forces and the vulnerabilities and strengths we must respect in playing this role.
When we recognize that our clients are in-between, we can help them see their options in mediating their own relationships with each other and with the institutions and community partners that influence them. We frame the social problems that clients bring in terms of the pushes and pulls they experience and share.
When we see how we are all in-between together, yet in different positions vis-a-vis power and privilege, we understand the importance of aligning ourselves with those pushes and pulls that stand to support client well-being and development, as well as the important of pushing back against those forces that stand to undermine such well-being and development.
Another result of being “in-between together” is that we convey authentic solidarity with our clients. From our own lived experience of being in-between, we know how complex it is to fulfill our roles and meet our mutual responsibilities in a world that is often organized to undermine that fulfillment.
From the perspective of in-between-ness, we can better appreciate the social nature of meaning-making. We can participate in that process by helping our clients observe how they are constructing their stories and by extending those stories to include the underlying love, care, hurt, injustice, helplessness, intelligence, wisdom, perseverance, courage, loss, and healing that happen when we live in between.
By knowing we are located in between our clients and our agency (with its policies, culture, supervision, and teamwork), we can better interpret and navigate our roles. At different points we may act as translators, advocates, integrators, coaches, investigators, and defenders.
Social Work in Global Settings
Perhaps the ultimate experience of being in-between, and one that can help us empathize more fully with displaced people, is that of international social work. While global social work has been defined so far in terms of global values and awareness of global trends that impact vulnerable people, we can also look at global social work as what occurs in international settings. Although your practicum setting is (as of this writing, anyway!) within the boundaries of the United States, you should be prepared to translate your practice to settings in which the worldviews and resources are vastly different. We will examine a case study (from the actual experience of the author’s friend) that sheds light on this process of translation. This example also demonstrates how social workers can effectively situate themselves between communities and organizations, bringing to light opportunities for solving social problems that were latent but not yet visible.
What lessons can we learn here about engagement in an international social work setting?
First, it is all the more important to bracket one’s biases and values. It would be easy to grow impatient with the pace of change, coming from a Westernized culture that often values progress over tradition and task completion over the cultivation of friendship. By immersing oneself in the worldview of another culture while keeping the community’s best interest in mind, one can act as a conduit for those interests. By letting go of an alien ideology, one comes to be accepted, not as a member of the community, but as someone occupying a unique position as a bridge between the past and the future.
Second, successful engagement requires “in-betweenness.” Not only did Brian need to locate himself within the nexus of relationships, he also needed to act as a bridge between the immediacy and cyclical nature of local rural life, and the forces that were gradually impinging on that life. Rather than take the role of an outside expert, he responded to the local fisherfolks’ own observations of less reliable hauls, shorter fishing seasons, and more intense typhoons.
Through engagement at points of dramatic disruption to normal life, positive changes can be mobilized without imposing external values. Receptivity to help, expectancy of improvement, and investment in being part of the solution all happen naturally when we meet the moment with the right message. Each international setting is different, but the common thread is that if one brackets one’s values, locate oneself in-between, and takes advantage of inflection points, then one is likely to move beyond engagement to positive change.
Group Engagement
Whether inside the walls of a community-based organization, or out in the community itself, social work often involves getting together with groups. Some of these groups are already formed along natural lines of affiliation, such as the fisherfolk in the case study above, and some are formed intentionally with help from the organization, to meet a specific need at a specific time. A global approach to group engagement means creating norms of mutual respect and recognizing the interdependence, resilience, and history of the community you serve. The word “community” may also be deceiving, because members of oppressed/marginalized/colonized populations often do not have a strong sense of cohesion. Those who are clients of social service agencies are often there because they have fallen through the cracks and may not be considered community members in good standing. They may be dealing with a great deal of shame and internalized messages about their “badness.” One purpose of group engagement, then, is to restore the sense of belonging: first to the group as a microcosm, and then to the community itself.

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