Sometimes the only power our clients have is the power to say “No.”
Or so they believe. My first client ever as an MSW intern, Mr. Percival Pointer, didn’t want any services of any kind. “If I don’t have anything, you can’t take it away from me.”
“Me, Mr. Pointer?” I asked. “Me, Craig, can’t take anything away from you?” Mr. Pointer nodded. He tended to talk in those terms—to Mr. Pointer, I was just another person melded with “the system.” There was him, and there was everybody else. If you were part of the latter group, he was vulnerable, and clearly, I was part of the latter group—nothing more than a huckster or snake oil salesman. And Percy Pointer was not about to let himself be vulnerable.
But if Mr. Pointer didn’t want anything, what was he doing slouched in a chair in my cubicle at Coalition for the Homeless, week after week? A case manager at CAMBA’s Atlantic House Men’s Shelter in Brooklyn had, a month or two earlier, asked him to come talk to me. He gave Mr. Pointer a MetroCard for the trip into lower Manhattan and assured him that I would give him a card for the return trip.
I already knew, when I’d met Mr. Pointer, that I should never try to “sell” a client something they don’t want. And what was I “selling?” Federal disability benefits. The goals of the program where I interned were two-fold. To help the medically or psychiatrically disabled single adult homeless in New York City obtain the federal benefits (SSD/SSI) they may be eligible for, and to leverage those benefits into a move out of shelter.
But Mr. Pointer wasn’t buying. “I seen guys lose the benefits, then they’re back where they started.” Although it was unusual for someone to lose his or her federal benefits, he was right—people did. And even if he wasn’t right, if that belief was part of the shield that protected him from being hurt, from losing, from having something taken away, he’d believe it. You can challenge someone on the facts, but it’s much harder to challenge their beliefs—and it is of questionable value to do so.
But, I shared what I knew. What he would do with that information was up to him. I explained to Mr. Pointer about who lost their benefits and under what circumstances and how our program helped prevent people from losing the benefits they’d won and assisted those who had lost benefits and on and on and on. Folks, if someone doesn’t want it, you can’t give it away.
Nonetheless, Mr. Pointer’s case manager expressed surprise that he continued to come to see me. “He must like you.” I was glad he liked me and was happy to see Mr. Pointer, but we had program goals. I needed to engage clients who were genuinely interested in pursuing disability benefits and moving out of shelter. And here I was, six or so weeks in, forming a bond with a client who wasn’t there for what I had to offer. It was suggested in supervision that I meet with Mr. Pointer a couple of more times and refer him to outpatient mental health services, which seemed sensible to me.
But Mr. Pointer wasn’t interested in mental health services and wasn’t interested in meds, though he was seriously depressed. He had been in prison for robbery and spent years using heroin. The only reason he’d stopped using, Mr. Pointer told me, was because if he stole money and went back to prison he wouldn’t be able to see his teenage daughter.
“How often do you see your daughter, Mr. Pointer?” “Almost never” he said. “I can’t afford the train fare upstate.”
That was my light-bulb moment.
“Mr. Pointer,” I said. “Let’s talk about these visits to your daughter.”
NEXT WEEK: “Once Upon A Client: The Curious Case of Percy Pointer” concludes as we explore the marriage of client goals, program goals, and ask “To what extent, if any, are we responsible for our clients’ behavior when they leave our office?”
I like this Craig, as social workers we are always listening for that piece in the engagement process that’s a window to reel them in (so to speak) and begin the real work to move them along.
Excellent point. Those “pieces” we listen for can be so important—good old-fashioned “meeting the client where they’re at.” This is why it’s a great idea to have a broad fund of knowledge on many subjects, and one of the reasons the social work profession values practitioners who’ve had other jobs and careers. If we’re able to be conversant with our clients in their particular areas of interest based on the broadness of our own knowledge base, we stand a better chance of bonding earlier on and finding ways to bridge personal and program goals. I encourage everyone to read and be curious and, when all else fails, to practice becoming a student of your clients’ experiences via asking appropriate questions. Just be mindful of that line between showing interest and delving into areas that may be too personal or not germane to what you are trying to accomplish.
Thanks for your comment.