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CYC-Online Issue 23 DECEMBER 2000 / BACK
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Working methodically – I: Being, acting, reflecting

Lies Gualtherie van Weezel and Kees Waaldijk (See Part II here)

Characteristic for workers in this profession is to be present and to act in the living situation. In other words being there in a specific way “often not doing anything special apart from drinking a cup of coffee, listening to a resident who has come back from school, or watching TV with some youngsters. The group members are most of the time doing their own things. But at some point they may need help with their homework, want a listening ear, or become involved in a quarrel “and then the worker has to become more active. In some situations help may be needed with ordinary things “dressing, laying the table, preparing an outing. The youngsters may lack the capability or the motivation to do these things themselves.

There are many very common daily activities to be taken care of “often seemingly too simple to be mentioned particularly, but nevertheless fundamental to life. The way these small things are taken care of determines whether a young person feels welcome, at home, taken seriously, invited to participate, helped to accept the situation or stimulated to restore the broken relationships with his family and others.

The youngsters with whom child care worker Peter is working, are leaving the institution within a few months. Martin will go home to live with his mother but Monica is preparing to live on her own. She has found a place to live with four other girls where the social worker will visit them regularly to discuss their experiences and to help them where necessary in the organisation of their life. Peter isn’t quite sure that Monica is securely independent enough to leave, though she is herself very optimistic: “I–ll manage," she says. Today it was her turn to prepare the coffee. Peter let it go and did not take any initiative, choosing to wait and see, and taking the risk that the coffee would not be ready in time. Yesterday he reacted differently and helped Martin, not only because he knew Martin needed help, but also to avoid the risk that in that case the group would become angry. They surely would because some of them had to be in time at the football-training. Today there was not such urgency and it would help Monica to confront her with the consequences of her own behaviour. Maybe Peter was being too pessimistic, and if so, she could be proud of her own success. Anyway, the positive or negative comments of her group-mates might teach her something.

What we are seeing here is that the worker has to think about his reactions and to realise the effects of his interventions. He makes choices. In this example he chooses between action and doing nothing. And another time the choice might be between doing the task himself, helping, or giving a hint. This brings us to the distinction between ways of being with clients:

These three elements are so closely connected that most of the time we don’t distinguish between them. To work methodically means to be to be aware, to think about what we are doing and what we want to achieve. We only can do so if we learn to distinguish between our being, our reflecting and our action. We start with some short remarks on the difficult notion of being.

We are present in very different ways. We can sit in a classroom or walk in the street in a way that nobody notices us. Another time we are clearly present by our appearance or by our mood “present in such a way that others cannot overlook us. They have to realise we are there. Our presence can be very dominant so that others know we are there, and are sensitive to our mood, our way of being. Most of the time, however, we are aware of neither our own way of being, nor the way the other is there. Only when I feel uncomfortable will I become aware of the environment and react to it. This might be conscious or unconscious. It can take some time to realise what is going on.

Being is a philosophical concept. The importance of the concept of being for human relations is shown by the French philosopher Levinas. He made us aware that the “being" of a human being is not the same as the “being" of, for instance, a stone. He warns us again and again especially in his main work Autrement qu–etre (Otherwise than being) not to apply the word 'being' naively and simplistically to our way of being. We should learn to distinguish being from just existing. The 'being' of human beings is above all characterised by openness, by relatedness to the other, by sensitivity, and even exposed-ness, with regard to the other who observes me. At the point of meeting with our fellow humans, we are not only active, but also, perhaps primarily, passive in relation to their unescapable presence, their awareness of us, their appeal to us.

In our view, these ideas are very important when we reflect more fundamentally on the presence of the residential worker in the living situation. Without being passive we do not allow the other to do something with us, which is a pre- condition for making contact with each other. Also, there can be no dialogue without us being influenced by each other, which means that the outcome of what is happening is open, unpredictable.

That is to say, when we accept someone as an other person with his or her own abilities and reaction, each encounter is one of infinite possibility.

Acting is more than just doing things. Acting is always the start of something new, even unpredictable. Hannah Arendt sharpened our eye for this with her distinction between labour, work and acting. This is a decisive warning against any purely technological conception of residential or day care work. Working with people differs fundamentally from making things or performing instructions or implementing a plan. A small event can be far-reaching. We cannot tell in advance what might be brought about by a particular action. This depends partly on my own follow-up action and partly on the action of others. The outcome can also be good or bad, depending on how we look at it and how it influences whatever follows.

We are confronted with unforeseen effects and situations This may be frightening for those who work with troubled young people. We want to be able to foresee the consequences of what we are doing. But that assumes that human behaviour is mechanistic. Hannah Arendt makes it clear that when we want to be sure we are forcing the situation, making things happen, using our power instead of acting within the situation.

The uniqueness of people makes every situation unique and the outcome unsure. In life we cannot bank on the fact that 2 + 2 makes 4. Or to quote Korczak: “Life is not a collection of arithmetic problems which always have one answer and at most two procedures". Again and again we find out that prescriptions do not work.

This distinction between making or shaping the situation, and acting within the situation with all its unpredictability, is not as a problem but a reality and a value in our dialogue with people. It is important if we really want to take the other person seriously and in the deep belief that everybody has his own life to live by participating in society in his own way. We can not take over the other person's life and should not try.

In our contact with people who are very much dependent on us, we feel responsible for them and that makes the danger greater. In working methodically there will always be a tension between looking ahead and trying to predict the outcome on one hand, and our openness to whatever may happen on the other. Out of our wanting the best for the other, we overlook his own responsibility and contribution. We need to be conscious of this and avoid the search for recipes or theories which exclude those we are trying to help.

Knowing for sure what will happen is attractive, but an illusion. So these two philosophers remind us that working with people and intervening in their lives is, in essence, always a dialogue and therefore open-ended. In this work we act most of the time without questioning the situation. An important part of our reaction towards the other is that it is spontaneous and based on intuitive grounds. Happily, most of the time we can say: “We did it well". To take time for reflection may even be dangerous: “Lucas is fighting with John. I have to separate them otherwise they might hurt each other." But working professionally is more than reacting spontaneously and intuitively. It would over-simplify the work, make it too personal, too individual, because such action cannot easily be put into words, discussed and evaluated.

Our professional acting is a response to the client and his situation, and this obliges us to be explicit as to what we are aiming at. This leads towards the conclusion that reflection is an important element in working professionally. Considering what’s going on, what should be done, what is the value of what happened is a substantial part of working methodically.

To be explicit isn’t that easy, for we are acting in a complicated field. Many people are involved and we often get many conflicting signals. How to analyse? How to judge? To start with, we have to learn to distinguish what is really happening. Our tools to understand what is happening and to reflect on the situation are part of our professional growth. What happens in our daily work is seldom easy to express in words. Korczak put it this way: “Every day is a day made up of work that can be neither defined, nor perceived, nor controlled nor comprehended in words “just thoughts, feelings whose name is legion." There is always more going on than we see and notice. But we can start to reflect on what we did see, and go on asking ourselves and others involved about what they experience and have noticed. It is important to recognise that we need others for reflecting, for questioning the situation and for realising what is going on “a never-ending process. This is not only because our seeing and understanding are always incomplete and one-sided, but above all because working methodically can only be done in dialogue.

In a situation where action and reaction toward people is always at stake and in essence the heart of this work, we are obliged to be aware of what we are doing by giving it words, by discussing and by judging. Working professionally is not just acting in such a way that the child, the resident or participant gets good treatment, but also in such a way that by and in his treatment his rights are respected. We have to incorporate in our action and our judging at least the following principles:

The unpredictability and the open-endedness of acting does not mean that we cannot speak of goals. On the contrary, to explicate our aims is a pre-condition to discussing the work and to considering with others what might be done and to judging the value for this particular person in this particular situation.

By realising for myself what I am aiming at can also be to look back to see what I have brought about. I can ask myself and others who are involved what happens in relation to our intentions. Good intentions are not enough. What matters is the outcome. Many times we will discover we did not achieve what we hoped.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that our actions, when we look more closely, turn out to have had a much more positive impact than seen at first hand “maybe positive in a different or unexpected way. It may be a new start, unexpectedly because we kept the dialogue open-ended.

The opposite can be true, too. Everything seemed to go so well in the beginning. We were handling the situation with great attention and our steps were well considered. But no real changes are apparent. What we were doing is not understood. It may even have hurt those who were involved. Working methodologically can be understood as a process “not as a straight line with a start, a goal and more or less well-planned steps in between, but as a never-ending spiral of encounters and actions with moments of reflection, and with surprises “not only as part of the process but as events of value in themselves.

To appreciate such moments is part of the art of life.


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