Why “thank you” can be the hardest words for a social worker to hear

When you're more used to criticism than praise, a client saying "thank you" can leave social workers downplaying their role. But this can leave clients feeling rejected, says our adult social care columnist Elizabeth Rylan

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Photo: niroworld/Fotolia

By Elizabeth Rylan*

For all the harrowing and emotional stories we listen to, I sometimes think that the hardest words we hear can be “thank you”. Over the years I have developed numerous strategies to deal with the often less than pleasant communication which can unfortunately be directed my way. The result is that I can have more confidence in dealing with insults, criticism and straightforward abuse than compliments.

It can be an instinctive response to dismiss compliments from any source. I’m sure most of us have responded to a compliment about what we’re wearing by saying how old it is, how little it cost, or how it would look so much better if only we were younger/thinner/taller. In the same way, it can be easy with clients or relatives who say thank you to reply that there is no need, that it was nothing, that we were just doing our job. This may be driven by instinct or by an attempt to normalise their situation, for example, to counter any view from their perspective that they should feel shame or sadness at having found themselves requiring social services.

Rejection

But there is a risk that this response can be perceived as a rejection rather than being grounded in modesty or a sense of inadequacy of not having been able to do more. Chatting to colleagues, we agree that it can often feel that it is the clients who you do the least for who seem the most grateful. This isn’t to say that overt signs of appreciation are expected or that I seek out validation, but rather that gratitude can come from unexpected sources. Sometimes when people say “thank you” my response is to wonder what for, because it can feel like have I done or achieved very little.

But when I reflect back on these situations, I can see that although I may have ‘done’ little in care management terms in these cases – so there is no tangible outcome such as a service provided, equipment installed or an assessment sent out – perhaps I have done more in human terms, through the simple but often overlooked fact of just being there at times of particular distress.

Validation

Perhaps by doing so, I have promoted a sense that they are worth spending time with. This may have served to remind them that there is someone, or perhaps a whole system, who does care.  Being present and in the moment with them may have been enough to have brought them hope at a point when they needed it most. In which case, validating their expression of thanks is just as important as listening to everything they have said up until that point, as it demonstrates that they have truly been heard.

So the next time someone offers their appreciation, I will make a conscious effort not to downplay it, internally squirm or auto-reply with “you’re welcome” with little thought behind those words.

Instead, I will try to pause, thank them in return and take the time to let it sink in. I will try to remember it as an example of the positive that can be found among all the challenges, and use it as a reminder to myself that it is worth persevering through the hard days. And of course, to remind me to say “thank you” to others who have had a positive influence on me in exchange.

* Elizabeth Rylan is a pseudonym for an adults’ social worker based in a local authority in the south of England.

 

 

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