Wednesday, April 28, 2010

'Working with the Public' Reads

And now for something completely different...

A site that succeeds in both amusing and raising my blood pressure reaffirms my respect to folks who work intensively with the public. Not Always Right is a collection of short interactions between workers in customer service/sales and customers. I love this site.

I also started reading Waiter's Rant by the Waiter (Steve Dublanica) along with skimming his site, Waiter Rant. Sharing in the book incidents with customers (though not as much as promised in the book's description) and staff, a bit of philosophizing, Waiter's Rant making me think a lot more about the work's challenges. Specifically the dynamics between waiters and customers and how this relationship may drive strangers to treat others, in serving positions, disrespectfully.

So far I'm enjoying the book and glimpsing into another person's field. I think I may enjoy the site more though, perhaps because the philosophizing in the book sometimes comes across like it was forced into certain sections. In a personal website (that also seems to include more of his experiences at the restaurant, which I like), because there doesn't need to be necessarily a cohesive flow, it's more natural for each post to take on a different topic.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Confidentiality in Front of Other Clients

A Jewish friend of mine told me she started to practice kosher to exercise putting restrictions on herself and get a sense of appreciating value of food and meaning of hunger. In a different way I try and constantly remind myself at work that whenever I talk in the hallway or in the lobby someone -- a client -- may always be listening. Meaning its best to talk about clients with a coworker inside a closed door (I suppose I should be thankful to have this luxury).

I do a good job outside work with friends by not naming clients and keeping details vague but at work I need to consciously stay focused on not talking about them while other clients are around. It's tough because it's always challenging to be on guard. Yes, as people we're on guard in some way all the time, but less with staff members, specifically when it comes to discussing clients. Also, one floor has open space that clients use and frequent. Meaning I need to always assume on that floor that someone may be listening. And just because other clients seem like they're preoccupied with a book or even in conversing with one another it doesn't matter. I would certainly not want my doctor to talk about me in front of other patients, even if my relationship with a client isn't exactly the same.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Talking Like a Case Manager

My supervisor Feona came in to my office yesterday and said she wanted to vent for a moment. After a few minutes of that she started going over tasks she needed to get done and complained that she wasn't looking forward to one specific challenge. We were talking it out and I suddenly realized that I was comforting --  or encouraging -- her but that I was doing it in 'case manager' mode, as if i was talking to John, a client I've been working with intensively in the past month. Similar calming tone, positive voice, similar phrasing.

When I write positive voice it doesn't mean cheery. I'm not a bubbly person and I don't make myself bubbly at work but in specific interactions I adopt a softer, more compassionate voice. I'm compassionate with friends but I use a different tone. My friends usually have a larger network of resources so I allow myself to say things to them that I don't say in some instances to my clients. The relationship also is of course personal and not professional. Maybe it was the setting or that I was still in work mode, but it surprised me how naturally I went into that mode with Feona. At a certain point she smiled and I thought she recognized that I was doing it but she didn't.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Having Someone Listen

I had a phone appointment with a client today. He spoke for about forty minutes after I said hello. He wasn't repeating himself or getting lost in a rant. He wanted to reflect on how his week had been going.
After getting off the phone with him I thought about how good it feels to have someone listen to you and listen for a good length of time. Something freeing about the other person being a sound board and knowing she doesn't expect you to reciprocate, like in a give-and-take we expect from family members or friends.

Friday, April 16, 2010

After a Crying Client Left My Office

It has been maybe around ten times that clients have cried in my office. Often feeling in return empathy or sadness, I find it hard to imagine what it's like to work in an environment where clients routinely cry. I presume that distancing oneself emotionally from one's job is even more important than the distance I try to keep.*

It was about a year into my job that I was sitting with a client, Ben, and a paper rustled and fell off my desk.  I picked it up and when I looked back at Ben I realized he was crying. After he left my office I sat back in my chair and tears streamed down my face for a few minutes as I gathered my thoughts. It wasn't the first time I had cried because of an interaction or incident relating to a client but it was the first time it happened because another client was crying.

Ben had told me about his childhood, his relationship with his abusive mom and the dad who he had been close to but died when Ben was young. He told me about difficulties in dealing with things now, opening up in a way he had never done before. The way he told his story, with tired body language, along with his vulnerability caught me off guard. I felt so deeply for him. He was a sweet, gentle man who seemed to have constant challenges in his life. At the end of our meeting he thanked me for listening.

Clinical social worker David Markham raised the topic of Crying at Work: Okay or Not? asking whether it was acceptable for people to cry at their jobs and asked what kind of crying is OK. It's hard not to cry in reaction to some of the stories I hear or interactions I have. I value a lot the fact I have a private space (my office) to do that if I need to. It can be a release.

As to crying with a client: It seems to me so intimate to share tears with another person and it's something I wouldn't feel comfortable to do with most people in my personal life. I suppose I also don't see it as part of my role to cry with a client because it would mean a wall or a boundary would crumble. I want to express empathy but feel more comfortable to do it in other ways. Of course I know that if I was on the other side I would want the person I'm talking to to try and reach out or comfort me. It's one of the more compassionate acts people can do to one another.

* Which doesn't mean I act like a robot but that I try not to immerse myself in a client's life story/situation because it can become too emotionally exhausting.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

You Mean You Don't File Taxes??

Case Managers: Who else today received frantic calls from clients asking to file taxes with you?

Was it indicated at any point that I or my agency have tax filing capabilities?? Argh. It was a good though in reminding me I can't make clients' problems my own. It's not my responsibility. (In similar news, thank you form 4868).

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Exchange with Client (Change in Viewpoint)

While waiting with a client for our appointment at the social security office, I explain the difference between medicare and medicaid.

Client (in awe): You know so much. You know much more than I’ll ever know.
Me: You know a lot more about some things than I do.
Client: Like what?
Me: You know much more about hockey, about Christianity, country music--
Client (smiling): You don’t know anything!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Take Your Headphones Off

A minor annoyance, but it bugs me when my coworker listens to music with her headphones. Mainly because each time I come in to her office I need to wait five seconds for her to take them off. Yes, yes, I know sometimes people need 5 seconds to stop what they're doing to focus on an intruder regardless of headphone wearage. Not less annoying.

I suppose I've been spoiled by usually being able to dive right into my rant/question/story nearly the moment I walk into a coworker's office. I can only pull so many times the moving-lips-but-making-no-sound-move for humor. URGH!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Foot in the Door with a Client

"Oh no, I don't think I'll have enough time to look that up," I agreed with Martin who said a moment ago that it's OK that we don't look up the hours to a museum near him. "Let's make a follow up appointment then," I continued to agree with him.

I probably could've squeezed in a quick search. But I've known Martin for two years now and his tendency is to visit me without notice every three months -- each time presenting a host of issues that he asks for help with. We usually deal with a couple, he says he'll be in touch, leaves and I don't hear word from him for a few months. I call and have in the past even stopped by his apartment but wasn't able to get a hold of him. Eventually he comes back to the agency.

This particular meeting went well and we were able to address an important health related concern he had. We then discussed another question he had about his social security benefits and finally Martin brought back the topic of the museum. "But it's OK if you don't have time, we'll reschedule." He said patiently, a suggestion he had never made in the past..

Yes, I'll take that foot-in-the-door opportunity to try and have you come back so we'll have an opportunity to discuss the other issues you're dealing with. You bet I'll try.

Update 4/23
Martin didn't show up to his follow up appointment but he did give me a call the day of to reschedule our appointment -- something he has not done yet. The appointment was made for the week of 4/26.

Update 5/8
I was happy to see Martin show up on 4/26. We weren't able to take care of everything he needed so we made a follow up appointment -- and Martin showed up then too. Looks like the method of leaving something to work on (perhaps particularly because it's something that's coming from him) is working so far.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Myth of Mars and Venus

I've found myself in an ongoing discussion with a coworker on the topic of men and women that grew into a conversation on whether men and women are more similar than they are different. I've always been intrigued by this compare and contrast between girls and boys/women and men, in terms of behavior, performance in verbal or math exams, etc. It's a popular topic. Scores of studies set out to observe differences, from how men and women interact in a controlled setting to neurological studies of men's and women's brains.

No, men and women aren't completely the same but they're more similar than different. The Difference Myth examines studies that claim innate verbal ability in girls/innate math and science ability in boys and discusses issues with how experiments were carried out or that results showing differences were significantly overemphasized. It also notes that variation within each gender is far larger than differences between men and women.

I've been reading Myths of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages by Deborah Cameron. It raises thought provoking insights and Cameron argues her points mostly through evidence, though she is guilty of illustrating a few points with anecdotes. She notes an all important point -- go back and study work cited directly, whether it's from a book, an article, or TV report.

Interestingly she addresses a claim I had read in several books: That women on average speak far more words than men each day. The book The Female Brain states the daily difference as 20,000 uttered words by women compared to 7,000 by men. A professor of phonetics, a Mark Liberman, found there was no scientific basis for this or any similar claim (19-20).

I would've liked Cameron's book to have been more in depth but it did provide good breadth -- from history (western perspective) of how women and men started to be perceived as communicating differently, to studying male/female differences in various contexts and cultures to alleged explanations of these differences (brain, genetics, evolution). It's a good starting point.

It's limiting to focus on differences between sexes because it breeds expectations that in turn discriminate against what's right for women or men to pursue as a career or path. It also takes away from the influence of culture and context. Much more is at play than simply someone's gender.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Consequences of Not Taking that Break

One hour lunch break, it's there waiting for me. So what if I lose 5 minutes here and there for the occasional appointments that spills over, or a case note I just want to get done. The remaining block of time is still there.

More rarely I need to deal with a surprise, an unexpected but important phone call or an errand. "Oh no problem, I'll squeeze in an extra 30 minutes later on in the day."

I won't. It's fairly difficult to take a break when other people are working and are coming in and out of my office to ask a question. "Oh are you taking your lunch now?" So I stop working for 15 minutes but then remember I need to take care of something and keep munching on my apple as I do it, getting back to work mode.

Those 30 minutes that weren't spent on a break are usually gone once not taken. But do I learn? Yes, it's true, I don't work every single minute of my day. But that block of uninterrupted time... It's hard to lose it.