Some of you know I have been working on developing an updated client-centered counseling model for lawyers based on Interpersonal Neurobiology (which involves the marriage of neuroscience and psychology). I think of lawyers as relational professionals, who share the same skills of listening and connecting with all other relational professionals. Helping the homeless population can be challenging, in part because they are a vulnerable population whose needs include heightened listening skills by people seeking to offer them help, so I thought would share some thoughts on the difficult art of listening and relationship building.
First, I want to share a brand new research study on an aspect of the homeless population’s needs. The study highlights how relationship betrayal by a caregiver, or someone close, can be more detrimental than other types of trauma for the homeless population. The study found a connection between people who experienced relationship betrayal, such as by family members, and the first onset of homelessness, and also with increased overall adverse outcomes. In other words, people who experienced strong relationship betrayal in their youth were more likely to have many problems in life and were more likely to experience homelessness earlier than other homeless people. (The cite and abstract for those interested are below.)
When we think of ourselves as “relational professionals,” seeking to help our clients with the strength of our relationship and ability to connect through listening, studies like this emphasize how important “relationship” is. A vast amount of other research also tells us, as we might guess, that “relationship” strength is intimately connected with how we connect, listen to, understand, and reflect back to the client what it is they are experiencing.
And universally, research also tells us that listening and understanding are some of the hardest parts of what relational professionals do. Here are some neuroscience based suggestions for how can we can optimize our listening.
Listening seems to involve not just hearing but seven core concepts; caring about what and how someone is perceiving; slowing down and seeking to observe what they think and see; standing beside them and making an effort through curiosity to explore their experience of the world with them; while remaining open to their experience without issue spotting or analyzing before we have heard all they want to offer; so we can accept their experience and not allow our experience to cause us to judge or jump to fixing the problem; and so we can reflect and fully restate what is being said as well as or better than the other person. A final core concept is being aware of nonverbal communications, such as through body language, use of words or aspects missing from the narrative. Perhaps a better word for listening is attuning to the other in order to truly understand and learn from them, free from the inherent way, or bias, in how we process information.
These seven concepts seem to be at the heart of all of the many listening and mindfulness theories we might already be familiar with. They spell out the acronym COCOA, and represent the warm engine of how we can listen and connect. Each concept in COCOA can involve other concepts.
Caring involves empathy, sympathy, compassion, kindness, warmth, and taking delight in the other or at least having positive regard. In part, these are drives within ourselves which we can foster to help us understand another. Ask: “How do they feel? How am I feeling interacting with them? Am I attracted or repulsed and why? Can I see their humanity? How can I “come along aside” them warmly?”
Observing involves paying attention and being present, being a witness to all of the words and absence of words, story components, and nonverbal communications, and pausing to take all in before moving towards evaluation. Ask: “Am I talking or observing? Am I moving towards judgment before seeing all that the other person is offering?”
Curiosity involves asking open-ended questions with a drive to recognize and seek new information, gaining insight about and understand the other and how we may be missing something or misperceiving. It is part of how we stand next to someone and examine things with them in a neutral way. Ask: “What are they seeing? Why are they saying that? Can I make sense of what this beautiful person is saying?”
Openness involves a mental state of being present and nonjudgmental so your view of the world does not hinder understanding the client’s view of the world. Openness encourages us to detach from our own experience so we can receive in the other’s life experience, and to pause before moving to the analysis phase of our work. Representing the homeless population gives us an excellent opportunity to practice our skill of understanding a completely different life experience. Ask: “Am I fully present in the moment of listening to the client’s story? Am I inserting my own experience and values into the client’s story and understanding of the world? Am I jumping to conclusions before I have taken all of the other in?”
Accepting involves the act of receiving what openness will allow you to hear, and fully experiencing what is offered, while free from our own internal evaluation and judgment without the activities of issue spotting and problem solving. It involves non-reactivity, or at least an awareness, regulation, and acceptance of our internal reactive feelings. Ask: “Am I receiving all that they are conveying? How is my interaction making me feel and are my feelings impacting my listening and thinking? Am I issue spotting before I have heard all the client wants to tell me?”
Reflecting involves both internal and external process of compassionately restating and/or summarizing what you think you have observed and received, primarily using the other’s words. You can use micro-expressions (like “uh huh” or even facial expressions showing understanding or agreement), macro-reflections (short summaries of a few words or a sentence) or larger summaries before moving on to exploring issues. Ask: “Can I recognize and re-state what they are feeling and saying? How do I feel? Let me see if I understand you?”
NonVerbal communication describes the vast majority of how humans convey information. The homeless population, again, gives us an excellent opportunity to test our skills in observing body language, things not said, and things said without clarity. Nonverbal communicate usually gives us clues to what may be important. If a hint is given, the client may want you to explore it. If an issue is left off the table, there may good psychological reasons why the client needs it to stay off the table. Understanding the difference is a high art.
Communication and listening involve great skill and practice. Project Homeless Connect gives us a chance to offer a rare gift to a person fighting to meet their most basic needs, and also a rare opportunity for relational professionals to test and practice their skills. For me, I will have COCOA RNV etched in my mind and I will use it as a touchstone to check in with myself to see if there is something else I can change in myself to better understand, connect with, and find ways to help the client move past the problems in their lives.
Warm regards to all,
Betrayal Trauma Among Homeless Adults: Associations With Revictimization, Psychological Well Being, and Health, Mackelprang, J. L., Klest, B., Najmabadi, S. J., Valley Gray, S., Gonzalez, E. A., Cash, R. E., J Interpers Violence April 2014 vol. 29 no. 6 1028 1049.
Jessica L. Mackelprang, Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center/Department of Pediatrics, University of Washington, Patricia Bracelin Steel Memorial Building, 401 Broadway, 4th Floor, Seattle, WA 98122, USA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Betrayal trauma theory postulates that traumas perpetrated by a caregiver or close other are more detrimental to mental health functioning than are traumatic experiences in which the victim is not affiliated closely with the perpetrator. This study is the first to examine the concept of betrayal among a sample of individuals with a history of homelessness. A total of 95 homeless or formerly homeless adults completed the Brief Betrayal Trauma Survey, the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder ChecklistBCivilian Version, the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale the Perceived Stress Scale, and a demographics questionnaire assessing participants= histories of homelessness, health, and relationships with their families. Regression analyses were conducted to explore the associations between high betrayal (HB) and low betrayal (LB) trauma exposure, relationship with family, and physical and mental health symptoms. Exposure to HB traumas in childhood and poor family relationships predicted earlier age at first episode of homelessness, and participants who had been exposed to a greater number of traumas during childhood were more likely to be revictimized during adulthood. Trauma exposure as an adult and earlier age of first homeless episode predicted symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, while trauma exposure alone predicted symptoms of depression and perceived stress. Number of medical diagnoses was associated with trauma exposure and becoming homeless at an older age. These findings emphasize that even among the most marginalized and multiply victimized individuals in our society, traumas that are characterized by a higher degree of betrayal are associated with more adverse outcomes.