How to keep those you serve at the center of your work.

Tan background. On the left is a heart encircled by arrows pointing towards the heart. On the right is the title text: How to keep those you serve at the center of your work.

-by Timothy (Tim) Grivois-Shah, Ed.D.

Imagine your family and friends were deeply and genuinely challenged by your behavior. In fact, because they are spending such massive amounts of energy managing your frequent, chronic, and intense outbursts, they are less able to connect with others who deserve their care and attention. They feel this is unfair, and that the situation has gotten out of hand. It’s time for action.

So, all the people who are upset at you create a small group to do something about this. Because they don’t really know what to do, they invite an expert to join the group. Neither you nor the group members know the expert, but according to their google search, this expert knows a lot about the behaviors you demonstrate. Furthermore, according to the expert, it is important not to introduce bias by getting to know you as a human being. Instead, they’ll conduct comprehensive interviews with people who they assume know you well. Hoping to uncover the root causes of the problems your behavior creates, the expert will lead the team in an analysis of all reported incidents of your behavior, looking for patterns that might indicate triggers, motivations, and possible support strategies. 

If they have the resources and training, they might even observe you in daily life. For some reason, no one in the group considers how you will certainly realize that you’re being shadowed, tracked, and observed. Predictably, you do realize what’s happening, and you don’t appreciate the surveillance. As a result, your ‘behavior’ artificially becomes much worse or much better whenever your shadow shows up to collect data.

Once the group completes all their interviews and compiles all their observation data, they’ll come up with a hypothesis to test (As it turns out, this intervention is really more of an experiment than a plan). Based on this hypothesis, they will decide strategies that everyone around you will use each and every time they interact with you. The team will also define with exceptional clarity how they would like you to behave, what they’ll accept as an “almost-but-not-quite level of performance,” and how they plan to handle you when you mess up again.

Without explanation, one of the group members summons you to a meeting in the middle of your work day. You see people you know, and you meet the behavior experts for the first time. They explain that your behavior is a serious problem and they tell you what you need to do to make it easier for them to get along with their lives and their work. You receive your daily point card so that people in your life can track each problem you create and rate your compliance with their plan. 

Sometimes, but not always, a member of this group asks you how you feel about the plan. It’s probably hard for you to say what you think, since it’s obvious that you’ve done something really big to bother all these people, and they’ve already decided what to do about it. Maybe you respond angrily and shout back at your friends, family, and invited strangers for trying to tell you what you need to be a successful person and a good human being without involving you in the process. Maybe you are too shocked and hurt to know what to think, so you nod weakly and say anything you can to get out of this room. Maybe a part of you wants to believe that this group has your best interests at heart, so you’re willing to go along with it for now. Certainly, your relationship with these people who say they care about you has changed.

At the core of this vignette is a pernicious and pervasive assumption that other people know better than others what they need to be successful and happy. If you lead or work in a school, nonprofit, or government agency, this not only poisons your relationships with those you serve but also mutes your students, clients, and community members at times when you need their voices the most.

The most important member of any team designing any intervention or service will always be the person the plan is supposed to benefit. Instead of assuming to know how best to help someone, find out sure. 

The work of caring professionals is to improve the condition of those they serve. Often, caring organizations try to carry out this work without meaningful involvement from those they serve. Keeping the voice your students / clients / community members at the center of your work is essential.

Action steps for caring professionals:

Instead of this…Try this…
Waiting until the meeting to ask for student, client, or family input…Involve the student/client/family at the beginning of the process.
Telling students that keeping cameras on is essential to their learning…Ask at least 15% of your students why they prefer to keep their cameras off.
Asking AP teachers about barriers to participation in advance placement courses learning…Ask students why they aren’t enrolling in AP courses. Then ask AP teachers to work with this data to reduce barriers.
Expecting youth and families to know what to say about complex issues…Provide youth and families background information and training that helps put their participation in context and allows for meaningful contributions.
Everyone we serve can and should participate from beginning to end.

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