Few people outside the field of behavioral healthcare grasp the importance of the therapeutic alliance. Facilitating a process of self-change through which patients become determined to pursue recovery requires the building of trust and the practices of empathy and deep listening. The art and skill of talented therapists are based mainly on an innate desire to serve, and an ability to practice their calling mindfully.
In the following article, Futures Outreach Professional and experienced interventionist, Stephen Watts, shares his thoughts about the importance of bringing a servant’s heart and the gift of presence to the practice of therapy. Informed by decades of work helping individuals and families find recovery and well-being, Stephen discusses the fundamental value of the authentic connection between patient and practitioner. The insights Stephen shares contribute to our ability to maintain an environment in which therapists feel safe, comfortable, and supported in their mission, and encouraged to do their best work for the individuals and families in our care.
Written by Stephen Watts
“We only have what we give” – Isabel Allende
I believe that when we are serving others, helping, counseling, volunteering, or whatever the circumstance, there are some basics that we need to possess. Growing up in the family of origin that I had, accidentally “falling into” a helping/counseling role for lots of years has taught me that our ability to serve others effectively is dependent upon our willingness and motivation. We need to have a servant’s heart, be present, and know how to engage the other individual successfully. I have facilitated a bunch of interventions and have counseled thousands of people and their families and I have learned from this, mistakes being one of my greatest teachers! I was academically trained in the liberal arts, not counseling but had many strong teachers and mentors along the way in my early years of working with suffering chemically dependent people and their families. Here is what I came to believe concerning the helping situation. We have to become “naturally therapeutic” as the author Jaquelyn Small put it.
John Holmes said, “There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.” Holding a servant’s heart has got to happen, I believe, before we can help others. There are degrees of servitude. There was only one Mother Theresa who possessed a tireless commitment to serving the abject poor of India. Not many of us can do this and I do not believe that level of service is necessary in most cases. Doing little unknown niceties to others daily is the character and behavior of many people who are never noticed. A heart of service comes from upbringing, is innate for some, and is learned through surviving some really difficult times and life events for others. The great twelve step movement of the twentieth century implores us to “clean house, trust God, and serve others.” There are countless occupations that require varying degrees of a dedication to service. The willingness, “the heart” for standing in the fire with others is not rare or uncommon. I see it regularly. It is a spiritual thing, a humanity thing, a paycheck thing, and a feel-good thing, though I seldom heard other counselors say “I feel good about doing ____________”.
Service is a great thing, but I believe that we have to practice being present when doing so, whether it’s a therapy session or serving a bowl of soup to the homeless. I found that when I showed up 100%, mentally and physically, things generally went well. The other person that we are helping knows if we are only partially present. They do. When we practice this presence, we can listen deeply, as Thich Nhat Hanh extols, empathize, and sit with the clients discomfort more easily. This IS a practice. The practice of truly being present in all ways while helping someone else improves our ability to serve. Many times, being present for the other person means listening with no response, judgement, counsel, or advice giving. People want to be heard. This is important and is a large part of being mindfully present. We sit, we breathe, and we listen deeply. We practice patience and acceptance when we hear stuff that is repetitive or makes us feel uncomfortable, or leads to wanting to fix the other person. We sit and keep ourselves in the present moment by noticing when we “drift off” and need to return to the room. Read “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hanh, or “Start Where You Are” by Pema Chodron, and pretty much anything by Jack Kornfield, to help you improve being present for your clients. If you are successful with being present for the people that you assist, you cannot help but be more present in your day to day life which will lead to feelings of gratitude and appreciation. Be patient with yourself, again, being present is a practice.
Engaging others in a way that will lead them to talk to us honestly and openly is, what I believe, a major fundamental in the service of others. If we have the desire to help the person in front of us, are able to remain present with them most of the time, then we engage them in a conversational exchange that is coming from a place of sincerely wanting to help the other person move forward in positive direction and solutions. William Miller and Stephen Rollnick, the authors of “Motivational Interviewing” state in this important counseling text that if we have the intention of the other person, our client, improving then that intention translates as greater outcomes for the client. These two author-teachers set forth four basic tenets of motivational interviewing. These are; listen with empathy, develop discrepancy, roll with resistance, and support self-efficacy. Help the client by really listening, showing them that there is a difference in the life they are living and the life they want to have, do not argue or push back with resistance from the other, rather “roll” with it, and support the client when they make progress toward a goal. I mention these because they are great guidelines for daily interactions, because I have used them in interactions other than counseling ones. Engagement has to be non- threatening. Back in the early days of chemical dependency treatment, confrontation of the client was acceptable and the preferable mode of addiction counseling. I will say that some confrontation is effective if; you have the client’s trust, have a therapeutic alliance with the client, and do it professionally and non-judgmentally. There is a way to inform others that their reality is not reality without sounding harsh or judging. This is hard to pull off for rookies in service to others. Confrontation without the aforementioned components is not only ineffective, but can turn into a negative outcome for both client and server. Engagement with others who need our help also is much more successful when we set aside the results or outcome of our service to others. It is not up to us. If we engage others in conversations that offer sincere support, listening to their response, concerns, perspectives, without judgment, and have the intention of helping that person get better, solve their issue, assist them in some way that makes their life better, then we have successfully met them and helped them.
“When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed”
– Maya Angelou
Outreach Professional at Futures Recovery Healthcare