by Nicole M. Cavanagh, Ph.D., LISW-AP/CPs
I teach a practice evaluation class to a group of master's level social work students. The basic premise of the course is to allow students to explore the parameters of their impact on client change through feedback and reflective thought. Change is the operative word. Students want to be effective AND they want to be liked. The unconditional positive regard they shower on their clients is returned somehow in positive affirmation of their skills or at least a “good relationship.” What I struggle with every class is that those two things are not the measure of practitioner success. Honestly, in most instances, it’s not even relevant (rapport building aside, that is).
The “magic” (if you will) is in the client’s readiness for change. How do you assess for readiness? How do you build rapport, ask the tough questions, and maintain some type of ethical practice while billing for services that a client may not be fully ready to engage in with you (or themselves)? Tough questions, I ask every week. Which brings me to Anabel.
Anabel is a mixed-breed dog living next door to me. She is about 18 months old and weighs 12 pounds. She is a delightful ball of enthusiasm and happiness. I’ve known Anabel since she was a pup and regularly shower her with belly rubs and ear massages. Whenever I ride by her house, she races to my side of our fence and greets me as if I was the most important person in the world. It really is an ego boost (receiving adoration from your neighbor’s dog). Anyhow, I began to notice that Anabel was no longer greeting me at our designated spot by the fencepost. I would walk over to the fence and call her name, and she would run over to me for “our time” in the yard.
This weighed on my deductive brain. “What has changed? What is different?” At first, I thought it was the jealous neighbors, trying to prohibit our friendship through mind-control tricks or yummy new snacks. But alas, I eventually had to turn the reflective lens inward and ask, “What has changed for me?” Much to my surprise, I found the change - I was driving a new car. Now, most of you would probably shake your head and say, “How obvious is that?” Well, my unsuspecting student, to our clients, the first reaction to negative outcomes is to look outside themselves for the cause of their problems.
You see, my sweet Anabel knows and loves me. She also knows the car I used to drive. So she chose to ignore other vehicles, because her source of happiness came in the form of a grey Toyota Camry. True, when she saw me at our fencepost, she recognized me and boom... happiness. So I pulled my car up to the fencepost, jumped out, and voila...every day since then, my Anabel now greets me as I pull into my yard. Anabel wanted happiness but wasn’t able to recognize that something had changed. Lacking the skills to “reason” her way out of a dilemma, she allowed herself to be content with my efforts to greet her. This is depression (or any problem) at its core.
To my point, our goal as insightful, intuitive practitioners is to carefully assess and reassess not only our clients, but ourselves, to ensure that the magic of transformation occurs within the full range of possibilities. These possibilities live and breathe within our clients’ self-determination and capacity alongside our clinical skills and evaluation.
This is why we evaluate practice...belly rubs and ear massages.
Nicole M. Cavanagh, Ph.D., LISW-AP/CPs, is a full-time professor at the University of South Carolina teaching in both the master’s and bachelor’s social work programs. Additionally, she coordinates all the field placements for the BSW program.