A team situation
Commitment! Easy to say but sometimes not so easy to keep.
Commitment is a common word in our field. We talk about making a commitment to youth. We talk about “being committed”, about hanging in even when the times are tough. But sometimes our “commitment to commitment” gets challenged. Like in the following:
John was admitted to our program just a few months back and at the time we knew he was seen as a difficult adolescent. But we said we were committed. But now, these past few weeks, since the “going has got tough”, I’m starting to feel something else on the team. I can hear the rationalisation of rejection starting. Staff are wondering if “this is really the right place for him”. I heard a few staff say the other day that they thought that “maybe we just don’t have the right resources to manage John's behaviour”: if maybe “another place would serve him better." If it might not “be fairer to John to be somewhere where they could manage his behaviour more effectively.”
I can see that the team is losing patience. That they are becoming frustrated with their inability to impact on John the way they would like to, and that they are thinking this is about John.
Fortunately, before John was admitted we had a team discussion about him, and our commitment to him. We had talked about how John was going to challenge our abilities, push our skills and commitment to their limits. I remember some of the things the staff had said during the meeting:
No question, this kid is going to push us to the limits.
There is gonna come a time when we will want to get rid of him.
He’s probably going to make us all feel like we don’t know what the hell we are doing.
He is going to try to get us to throw him out, for sure.
He hasn’t had the experience of anyone hanging in with him so he is going to expect us to be the same.
If we are really going to be helpful we are going to have to hang in no matter what he comes up with.
We had talked about what his behaviour might look like when it was at its worst. How we might react when we found ourselves feeling incompetent. How we were going to feel like we didn’t know what we were doing. That John was probably going to be one of those youth who made us want to blame him for our own inabilities. And how, when that time came, we would have to gather as a team, re-group, examine what was going on for ourselves and re-group. Re-commit.
So, I call us together and we begin to talk about John and our experience of him. As always we begin with our need to feel competent so we start with rationalising why John “might” need to leave: go someplace else. It seems we always start “out there”. And that’s okay. It’s where we are at the moment. My job is to help us move from here. To go someplace else. For us to move; not John. We talk about John and his behaviour for a while.
And then it is time for us to move from “out there” to “in here”.
I ask the team how they are feeling, what’s going on for them, for us? We start with our feeling of frustration. We move quickly to talking about why we might be feeling frustrated. Images of self come up for us. We want to feel competent; to be able to believe we are doing something useful for the youth we try to help. We think we are a good team, an effective team, one of the best. And right now, with John, we aren’t feeling that way. One woman ventures that she hates how she feels incompetent when she is working with John and “yes, sometimes I just wish he would go away so I don’t have that feeling."
She has opened the gates. A few of the other staff talk about how they feel the same. Others talk about how this is not about “us”, it is about John's needs. Fortunately this is a conversation we have had many times before. It is not unfamiliar territory for us.
I comment that this discussion sounds familiar. Heads nod. Someone laughs awkwardly. A silence follows. We are waiting for ourselves. Reflecting, I am sure, on previous experiences.
One of the staff challenges me. Someone always does. It is a part of our process. An important part. A welcome part because it means we are about to go where we need to go. Into the challenge to our commitment.
"So what are you saying. That this is all about us. Not about him. Look at his behaviour! He’s doing what he wants. We aren’t having any impact. we’re not helping him. He should go someplace where they can help him. It’s abusive to keep him here." The staff has pulled out all the stops. Pushed all the buttons.
"I don’t want to move back to John,” I say. “I want to stay with us.” More silence follows. More reflection.
I begin the conversation which needs to happen.
"I remember when John first came,” I say. “We talked about how hard it was going to be. We talked about how we would come to a time when we wanted to send him away. We talked about how we would come to a point where we would feel incompetent. We talked about how, in out thinking, no-one had ever really hung in with John and how he would expect us to be the same. How he would challenge us to be the same. And I am wondering if we are at that point. The point we predicted would come.”
One of the team responds. “When we talked about that,” he says, “I never thought it would be this hard.”
"Me neither,” some others reply.
The discussion goes on. We talk about ourselves, our feelings, our sense of wanting to do well. Our hopelessness and helplessness. And gradually, ever so gradually, we begin to move to talk about John differently. We discuss his needs, what it would be like for him if we reject him now. What it would mean both for him, and for us. We wonder if we are at a crisis point in our relationship with him. We realise that we are. Eventually someone asks “So, if he is going to stay, what can we do differently?”
"We’re doing it," I say. “We are beginning to shift our attitude, our perception. I think we have come to a place where we are thinking about John in a certain way. He has moved for us from “being a challenge” to “being a problem”. And I think we are beginning to question that perception of him."
"I know. I know,” one of the staff laughs. “Perception determines action.”
It doesn’t end there, of course. We wind back in to the place of needing to have John move on, back to ourselves, back to John. It is the way of such conversations. Finally, someone says, “We made a commitment to this kid. We told him we were going to hang in.”
More silence. And finally acceptance. This is about commitment. Our commitment to John. And our need to meet that commitment. As a team we have moved to where we need to be. Into our commitment.
Someone laughs again. “Really, she says, we have to stop making these commitments. We always end up holding ourselves to them.”
We talk about how we are going to be the same or different with John. We revise our approach a little. We head back to the floor know it will be different because we are different.
I am grateful that we had those “admission” discussions when John first came.
Our commitment, we know, is really to ourselves and our work.