Sometimes as an advocate I work with clients who run into difficulties with the people they turn to for help. A client with a spinal cord injury called to tell me that a social worker was acting in ways that disempowered her, then told the client that she needed to be more empowered. Yet the client’s suggestions were ignored, her ideas were greeted with negativity and her efforts were, in her words, “useless”. She explained that she did her homework before she called the social worker to save time, but found herself put on the defensive instead and was frustrated.
I called the social worker up and asked her a few questions. She told me that this client asked for extra services and was ungrateful. She wasn’t happy that the client researched possible avenues to take and said clients “didn’t see the whole picture”.
I decided it was best to set up a three way phone conference so I could listen in on their interaction. The client did a fair to good job of being specific with her requests. The social worker continued to interrupt and challenge the client every time she attempted to empower herself. I could hear the client’s frustration growing. I let it go the first two times then chimed in and pointed it out the third time. I asked the social worker if she felt that the client’s suggestions were inappropriate and the social worker said no.
At that point I asked the client to hang up and asked the social worker to define the term “empowerment” and the social worker replied that it meant the client did not need to ask her for help and did not call her. Empowered clients, she told me, managed on their own and didn’t need referrals.
I can understand why an overworked social worker would want a caseload full of clients who fall into the category of appearing not to need any help. However, the worker clearly misunderstood what “empowerment” meant. Asking for help does not define one as “disempowered”. Sometimes we need to do that to get access to resources or information. This is a very different situation than a client who calls and tries to dump personal problems or responsibility.
After we talked about definitions, the social worker sighed. “I was hoping this empowerment thing would give me less work,” she admitted.
I couldn’t promise her that it would, but told her that communicating in a way that empowers her clients would produce independence in the client’s life. I also explained that if she helped clients resolve their problems, the client would stop calling repeatedly. To her credit, she agreed to give it another try.
Our second attempt at a phone conversation was much improved. The social worker obtained the information the client needed, emailed her with it and the client was able to take it from there. The client felt empowered and the social worker felt that the client used her time and resources in an efficient manner.
Empowerment does not mean that you never ask for help, but remembering to ask for that help in as specific and organized a way as possible is something you can bring to the table to help make these interactions mutually positive.
Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan