What Are They Saying?

One of the best parts of my job as a Professional Staff Instructor is meeting all the different people who work in human service. I never fail to feel a bit humble by all that they are and all that they do. You cannot help but be in awe of these individuals who work with hard-core gang members, people with severe psychotic diseases or those with significant cognitive disorders and disabilities. Something else that also impresses me is the stories that they tell. Some are stories of successful interventions or creative ways of intervening. Sometimes they are insightful ways to prevent crisis situations. The examples and anecdotes are usually very powerful and thought provoking. I heard one such story recently.


A sixteen-year old girl is living in a group home with several other female residents. We will call her “Katy”. She is a recent arrival and has not made any friends. She avoids direct eye contact with staff and communicates only when absolutely necessary. Small in stature and skittish by nature, the young woman often jumps at the slightest noise, especially at night. Katy keeps to herself often wrapping her arms around her midsection and gazing downward as if to close off the world around her. The staff at the home can’t remember when they have seen a more feeble and dismal individual than the one that is currently in their care.


They attempt to reach out to her on any occasion that they can, but to no avail. Their struggles to get her to open up usually end up in frustration for everyone. The other girls at the home call her names and treat her with contempt. She is in a world of her own, but one day that all changes.


Adjacent to the day room at the home is a washroom that all the girls share. Katy has been in the washroom a long time and the other girls are starting to get annoyed at her “hogging” it all for herself. The staff gets concerned and knocks on the door only to hear water continuously running. Much to their relief she finally exits the washroom. Their relief turns to distress as they notice her hands and arms are raw from scrubbing. Her facial expression reveals someone consumed with obsession. She begins screaming at staff, “The soap you have here SUCKS! I can’t get clean! I keep washing and scrubbing, but I can’t get the dirt off my skin! What’s wrong with you idiots! Why can’t you buy any decent soap!?”


In the Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training program we discuss how listening is part of a holistic approach when dealing with crisis behavior. Part of that listening process involves listening for underlying causes of agitation. We discuss how words, though sometimes presented as facts, are not always factual.


If the staff in this particular group home were to have listened only for the words from Katy, they might have thought that they needed to invest in better quality soap. But instead, they listened to the feelings behind those words and they realized that Katy had been physically and sexually abused…..and all the soap in the world would not have gotten her clean.


Words can be used to camouflage feelings, words can be used to build walls, and words can be used to hide behind those walls. So, like the human service providers at that group home, let's listen for what is behind those words. Listen to what people in your charge are saying, but also listen to what they are NOT saying. Listen to what they are telling you, but just as important, listen to what they are NOT telling you.


Katy got the help that she needed. Katy benefited from the listening skills that the staff possessed. Katy is better off today because the staff at that group home took the time to provide for the best Care, Welfare, Safety, and SecuritySM that they could give. My kudos to those heroes of human service.

Learn more about behavior management techniques.


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