Take a Supportive Stance in Your Collegial Communication

January 5, 2018
T.D. Loftus
Two pairs of hands clasped together.

We listen empathically to our clients—but what about our peers?

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” That’s the fifth of Dr. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It meshes well with the best practices of those of us who are Certified Instructors in our workplaces—professionals committed to the journey of practicing Care, Welfare, Safety, and Security. This ideology guides our interactions with our clients and the Staff that we instruct. This includes starting from a position of respect, being strength-focused, and believing in the best of those we encounter. 
If a client asks for help, we become very encouraging. We recall and employ core skills used in Empathic Listening:

  • Give undivided attention
  • Be nonjudgmental
  • Restate to clarify messages
  • Allow silence
  • Listen carefully to what’s really being said

When it comes to our clients, we immediately acknowledge that asking for help isn’t easy. There is vulnerability in admitting you don’t know how to solve a problem on your own. How people respond when somebody asks for help directly impacts whether that person will continue to reach out for help or not. As professionals, our practice is fostered by our belief in the best of others—this helps our clients grow, trust others, feel safe and respected in their vulnerability. Quite simply, the way we treat our clients when they ask for help can directly affect their self-esteem.
Empathic Listening adds a powerful component to our practice with our clients; we seek to understand what they’re saying first and foremost. This process alone may be enough for the person seeking help to come up with their own solution—the difference between giving somebody a fish and teaching them how to fish.
As professionals, it’s critical that we employ this practice with each other when a colleague comes to us with a question. Even with foundational educational experience, our colleagues can feel just as vulnerable as our clients do when they ask for help. And maybe they feel even more vulnerable, because there is an expectation that as trained professionals, they have the advantage of knowledge and skill obtained through designed instruction—such as the journey one takes in becoming a CPI Certified Instructor. Their request for assistance might feel to them like an admission that they’re not able to accurately apply all that experience and insight they’ve accumulated in their career. It can be embarrassing to admit that you don’t have all the answers.

Who does?

Your colleague isn’t just seeking answers, they’re seeking your support.

On some occasions, I’ve observed fellow professionals afford less Empathic Listening to their peers than they do their clients. While we may attempt to help each other do our best, our supportive practices are sometimes diluted because of our perception of the expertise and capabilities in our colleagues. In these instances, a more unilateral exercise of Empathic Listening would improve the support we offer them.

It starts with one professional taking the step of vulnerability and courage to ask for the counsel of their peers with a specific challenge. And instead of a supportive response, they receive one of two blanket answers. “Follow your agency’s policies and procedures.” Or, “You should take proactive measure X, Y, or Z to prevent this from happening.”

While I agree that these are both extremely important and primary, dispensed as blanket responses, they likely don’t help the colleague in question solve their problem. In fact, it’s more likely that a seasoned professional tries both things before arriving at a challenge that they need help in resolving.

Blanket responses are incongruous with the practice of Empathic Listening; in fact, these types of response patterns can hijack a constructive discussion from reaching a viable solution, because the original inquiry can get smothered by them. Dismissive or generalized responses fail to acknowledge that our colleague may have already exercised these options.  Professionally speaking, this also runs counter to how one might engage and treat a client. There is no belief in the best of those we encounter in this type of situation, and so the unintentional result is that a professional who looked for assistance ends up not only without a solution, but feeling alienated or shamed by their colleagues. 

Pay attention with purpose—we’re in this together.

Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”  Empathic Listening means that we don’t race to provide a stock answer, or jump to a conclusion of any kind. It truly means seeking to understand before being understood—listening completely, and not partially. It means paying our undivided attention to our peers as well as our clients, and responding in a thoughtful way. After all, unique challenges can still occur despite best practices, and they still merit mindful, Empathic Listening to help a colleague identify unique solutions.

Not only as health, education, and human services professionals, but as CPI Certified Instructors, we are part of a longstanding community of like-minded professionals that are committed to quality care and driven to achieve best practices.  This notion of continuous improvement and quality growth means we all have a collective commitment to keep each other safe and help each other learn.  In doing so we must fearlessly examine our Empathic Listening skills to support a culture of quality, compassion, and caring—not only for our clients, but for each other as well. Let’s be cognizant of this in how we treat and support each other.
T. D. Loftus, MS, LMHC, is a Senior Level CPI Certified Instructor. With a Master of Science degree from Northeastern University in Counseling Psychology and a BA in Psychology from Boston College, he’s a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and a quality management and compliance officer in a community mental health agency. T.D. is also a Reiki Master Level II and a Kettlebell Instructor through the International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation.

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