There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies
Martin Luther King Jr.
I am the front-line guy who answers the phone at Spurwink if you call wanting a service. Six months ago, I was in training, learning how Spurwink does things. Mission statements, company values, culture, I’m sure you know the drill. One topic which stood out as being potentially useful to my job was the concept of “unconditional positive regard.” Spurwink can seem like a large and sprawling agency, especially to the unfamiliar, and my job was going to be speaking to people looking for services, and connecting them to the appropriate service. This means that I was going to be speaking to possibly the widest variety of people out of anyone in the agency, and that’s where unconditional positive regard becomes important. In a nutshell, unconditional positive regard is an attitude or mindset that involves setting aside one’s personal biases and opinions, and being non-judgmental to all types of people. Clearly, this was a feeling I would need to adopt in order to do my job well.
No one likes to examine and scrutinize their biases, and I am certainly not an exception to that reluctance, nor am I as thoughtful, considerate, fair-minded, level-headed, and bias-free as we all wish we were. One group of people that I might find difficult to treat with positive regard is parents who have made what I view as serious mistakes. It is all too easy for me to slip into seeing these parents as extremely selfish, putting their own needs above those who can’t take care of themselves, and the results are sometimes devastating. At Spurwink, we treat many children who have experienced significant trauma in their lives, and at times I am far too ready to lay the blame all on one person—sometimes the person I am speaking to. It’s unfortunately too easy for me to lose my capacity to think clearly. When I began this job, I knew I’d have to put in some effort into this notion of unconditional positive regard.
So I started my job with this in mind, and found that those types of calls did indeed come in. I’ve spoken to parents who have failed to provide a healthy environment for their children, parents who did not seem to have the capacity to understand how to raise a child, and even parents who have outright abused or neglected their children. Plenty of these parents have much more knowledge and ability now than they did at the time, and many more seem to be on their way to learning, but some show no signs of growth or change. I am extremely thankful that my training prompted me to attempt to overcome my biases, because I found that with a little effort, my reaction to these situations was the exact opposite of what I expected. If anything, I found myself feeling a little bit more optimistic after these conversations, and I couldn’t even figure out why.
One day, I received a call from a woman requesting services for her young son. Her child was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, and was addicted to a long list of drugs at birth. This mother explained all this to me in a matter-of-fact tone that caught me off guard. Why didn’t she feel ashamed or embarrassed or guilty about any of this? By stopping to listen without judging, I was able to figure out not only why this woman was so calm, but also what it is that makes me feel so optimistic. Before, I might have assumed that she wasn’t ashamed because she didn’t understand that what she did was wrong. However, by really listening to her speak, I could see that my assumption would have been wrong. I could hear that her own pride was not on her mind at all. All she wanted was for her son to have the best life possible, and that came across with every word she spoke.
I have now found that this is the case with every parent I speak to, no matter their situation; they are all trying to help their children, whether or not it conflicts with their own self-interest. What I was seeing—and what I continue to see every day—is nothing but the unselfish side of people. It’s hard not to be a little optimistic when seeing the good side of people who might not show it very often.
I have no doubt that I’ve been able to provide people with better service by taking the time to listen without bringing my own thoughts to the table, and I’ve certainly gained additional insight and understanding that is valuable for any part of life. I feel lucky to have learned this at Spurwink and am glad to be helping people who are asking for it.
By Robert Baillargeon
Spurwink Link Coordinator