Realizing how and why you're drawn to a profession can greatly enhance your ability to perform your job. Here's an informal, easy way to assess both the personal and practical issues at work in any human services career. Through familiar scenarios, field-tested exercises, and useful checklists, learn how to be more effective in addressing personal motives and goals being sensitive to those who receive services discovering fundamental values for human services developing effective relationships with consumers, colleagues, supervisors, and professionals from other agencies planning for professional development identifying long-term professional goals Like the first edition, this edition focuses on the service provider rather than on the recipient, but new material includes a discussion of changes in the human services field since the late 1980s and information on working with older adults, people with terminal illness, people with AIDS, and victims of crime and domestic violence.
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Gail S. Bernstein, Ph.D., has been working in human services, health care, and education for more than 30 years. Her work with adults of all ages and with adolescents has taken her to group homes, high schools, supported living environments, long-term care facilities, private residential institutions, vocational habilitation programs, inpatient psychiatric hospitals, and outpatient psychotherapy offices. Dr. Bernstein earned her doctorate in 1978 from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Studies in Behavioral Disabilities, and is a licensed psychologist in Colorado. Her work includes her psychotherapy practice in Denver, training and consultation for helping professionals, and writing for both general and professional audiences in print and electronic media. She has clinical faculty appointments at the University of Denver School of Professional Psychology and the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry.
Excerpted from chapter 6 of "Human services? . . . That must be so rewarding." A Practical Guide for Professional Development, Second Edition, by Gail S. Bernstein, Ph.D.
Copyright © 1999 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. All rights reserved.
Working with Difficult People
The last part of this chapter concerns the process of interacting with people whose actions you find frustrating. Examples of difficult behavior include the following: the colleague who smiles and nods when you ask her to do something and then does not do it, the supervisor who yells at you when you say that he has not been clear, or your counterpart at another agency who does not return your calls. These are people with whom it is difficult to work. Their behavior may trigger strong emotional reactions in you, reactions that make it hard to behave calmly and proactively. There are three ways you can respond to people who act in problematic ways: 1) You can try to change their behavior, which is likely to be a slow process with no guarantee of success; 2) you can give in; or 3) you can cope. Coping involves contending with people on equal terms and is a way to establish a balance of power in a relationship (Bramson, 1981). People you find difficult to work with may have power over you; coping is a way to establish a balance of power in the relationship so that you can both get on with business (Bramson, 1981).
Suppose you work with someone you find difficult. You are constantly exasperated and frustrated by interactions with this person and, as a result, are unable to complete an important part of your job. You find yourself reacting to this person, rather than planning how to handle difficult situations in advance. Simply reacting will not help you in the long run because it places the difficult person in control. The following steps are designed to help you to proactively cope with the problem.
1. Is this a consistent problem? Ask yourself whether the person acts this way all the time or just in the current situation. If the problem is not one you typically have with this person, you may want to sit down with her and ask what is happening. If the problem is a continual one, move on to Step 2.
2. Get some distance from the situation. Choose a time and a place that remove you enough so that you can consider the problem calmly. For instance, if your problem is with the person in the office next to yours, then you may want to leave your office and find a quiet place farther away.
3. Describe in detail, preferably in writing, the behavior of the person you find difficult. For example, the following is Tyrone's description of a colleague who is a complainer. Every time Tyrone says more than "hello" to him, the colleague has something to complain about. Some of the things the colleague has said recently are as follows:
4. Ask yourself how important it is that this situation change. We all have to make decisions daily about where to invest our time and energy. Consider whether this particular situation is worth investing your time and energy in trying to change it. If yes, continue.
5. Describe what you did and how you felt when faced with the behavior you listed. Describe your own actions in as much detail as possible. Here are some of Tyrone's sample responses to the complaints listed previously:
6. Review the interactions and emotional reactions you described, and answer these questions:
7. Given your answers to Step 6, describe what you need to do to cope more effectively. Answer these questions:
8. Using your answers to Step 7, write an action plan that specifies what you will do and when you will do it.
9. Set a time to review your progress toward an effective coping strategy. When you conduct your review, decide whether your plan is working. If not, revise it.
(From Bramson, R.M. (1981). Coping with difficult people. Copyright © 1981 by Robert M. Bramson. Adapted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.)
Coping Strategy in Action
Ethel is a "sniper." Whenever Amanda makes a suggestion at a meeting, Ethel has a comment such as "There goes our college graduate again, being high and mighty and trying to improve us." These comments are always made with a smile and a pleasant tone of voice, so they are not openly hostile. Ethel is also a master at making snide remarks about the boss whenever he is not present. A recent example is "Well, he certainly was pleasant today in the staff meeting — I wonder what extra work he's dreaming up for us." When Amanda presented a new approach to delivering one type of service, Ethel said, "There goes Amanda, playing up to the boss again."
Amanda developed a coping plan for working with Ethel. Here are her responses to the nine questions listed in the previous section:
This coping strategy often helps, but it does not lead to success every time you use it. Sometimes your best efforts to cope fail. Then, it is time to remember that you always have a choice about whether you continue to stay in contact with a person whose behavior is consistently difficult (Bramson, 1981). This is not an easy choice, particularly when your difficult person is your supervisor and your only choice is to find another job. Choosing to withdraw from contact, however, is always your final option.
Cherish an awareness that coping with Difficult People is never easy and hardly ever fun. If you know what you're doing, you ought to feel uneasy. Acknowledgment of fear is the first step toward moving beyond it. (Bramson, 1981, p. 175)
6-7. Pick one difficult person you must interact with regularly at work or at school. Use the nine steps above to develop a plan for coping with that person.
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