Hands Off

March 4, 2009
A stethoscope and a mask laying flat.

Part of the reason I love being a Professional Staff Instructor is that the position allows me to expand on some of the basic intervention concepts and content that the Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training program provides. Participants are frequently interested in getting “more bang for the buck” so I happily oblige. I was training a group last week in Charleston, West Virginia that fit that description. The group was made up of many veteran Instructors, some of whom were at the training to have their certification renewed and a couple of participants who were seeking recertification. They were interested in more dialogue about proximity issues. They were looking for more discussion points that they could use to expand on what is already in the course. The discussion points were many.

The whole “proximity” issue revolves around being aware of the personal space needs of others and being respectful of those needs. Basically, don’t get too close to other people and you won’t end up escalating their behavior in that regard. But, there is more to this issue than just physical space. What about possessions? Let’s acknowledge that personal possessions are an extension of personal space. The following story illustrates this point.


“Sam” lived in a home with staff that were loving and caring. Most staff were aware of the special needs this man had. He liked to collect things. “Sam” especially liked to collect peanut butter jars. He would eat the peanut butter and then clean out the jars. Because the jars were plastic and they were dutifully cleaned, there was no violation of policy and staff allowed, sometimes even encouraged the hobby. “Sam” would decorate the jars, stack them into different configurations and even give them names. Those jars were part of who he was, part of his identity. One day “Sam” left his room for an appointment. While he was gone, some staff; who were new at the facility and not aware, removed those peanuts butter jars. “Sam” came back and he destroyed that room.

This was a case where staff did not get physically close to the person, yet still invaded that person’s personal space. Has someone ever used something of yours without your permission? How would you feel if you went to lunch and came back and found someone sitting at your desk? Why do some people feel violated when TSA officers search through their bags at the airport? It is the same issue.

Additionally, some of us who work in human service have to ask personal questions of the people we are supporting. Questions about age, weight, sexual history, drug use and other questions that can make people anxious and upset. Let’s also acknowledge that personal information is an extension of personal space.

The issue is that many of us in human service have to ask personal, uncomfortable questions. There are also some of us who have to touch or handle the personal possessions of others. So the question arises, how do we go about doing our jobs and not getting people upset with proximity issues at the same time? Can we have our cake and eat it too? The following suggestions may help.

  • Acknowledge that what you are about to do/say may make that person upset.
  • Ask for permission before you proceed.
  • Instead of staff emptying or taking/moving the (bag, cell phone, food, etc.), have the client do it.
  • Communicate that what is taking place is consistent with the facility’s policy.
  • Explain the benefits of what you are doing i.e., safety.
  • Always use respectful body language and tone of voice when having to invade personal space.
  • Provide adequate privacy to protect personal information.
  • Make the individual part of the solution by getting them involved with the process.
  • Don’t invade any more than is absolutely necessary.
  • Offer choices on ways to proceed.
  • Make it a point to thank the individual when it’s over.

Invading personal space may be a necessary part of our jobs, but it does not have to be unpleasant. It depends in large part how we go about it. Empathy for the individual whose space is being invaded can go a long way towards shaping our ability to get the job done in a safe and unobtrusive way.

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