What makes you stand out in the crowd? Is it about learning a new approach? Brushing up on best practices? Achieving another credential?
In the helping professions, we share similarities in our formal training with some variation, of course. We learn about relevant theories, best practices in our particular field, various techniques and strategies.
When we work for particular organizations and systems, we are governed by a mandate and a set of guiding values.
Specific programs and services within these organizations normally have a central purpose for a particular group of people who access them.
There are policies, procedures, and protocols all in place to make our job easier and to give a sense of continuity and uniformity.
Why Your Service Signature is Important
Let’s not forget about your unique way of making your contribution; your personal approach.
Learning about the foundational theoretical underpinnings and specific methods involved in any helping profession is an obviously crucial element of your future success.
Some of it is really concrete. I think of nurses who are trained in various health procedures that have specific steps and in many situations, a scientific process. There is a right way and a wrong way to draw blood. And yet, at the same time, there are other softer skills that go along with that type of interaction which can provide an opportunity to show your service signature.
There is an opportunity for engagement and presence that might help the person on the other end of the needle feel more comfortable. And at the same time, it might offer a sense of lightness for the nurse in that moment of connection. It is in these moments that we get glimpses of joy and fulfillment.
Navigating The Grey Area
In addition to these more “technical” skills, the helping professions are mired in a great deal of abstract concepts that require some time for digestion and integration on the part of the learner.
When we talk about things like “self-determination” and “empowerment,” we are delving into a more gray area in that there are countless ways in which these ideas can be understood and even more ways in which they might be expressed in service to others.
Donald Schon referred to these as “soft skills.” Soft maybe; not less important or valuable. And not always easy to fully integrate into practice.
At the end of the day, there is a process involved in taking theoretical approaches and best practices from our heads to our hearts to eventually demonstrate it through our actions. These approaches and practices inform our personal service signature. They are a part of it, yet ultimately, it is you as the person who expresses it in your own unique way with the people you serve.
And it is the embodiment of that in your work that will create the space for connection with others.
It’s About How You Do What You Do
Focus on how you do what you do. What frame of reference do you come from in your work? What matters the most to you when you interact with someone? How do you wish to feel as you begin your day, go through it, and end it?
Your personal service signature will develop and evolve over the course of your career so check in with yourself for upgrades. And don’t be surprised if you completely change your mind about certain things along the way!
Your service signature is most legible and accessible to others when it is most natural to you. And this takes time and energy. It takes conscious awareness. You will know you have reached clarity when you can say it, feel it, and be it. So pay attention to that. It can be a really wonderful moment!
Let’s get started! I would love to hear about your process!
Start with identifying the foundational elements that inform your service signature including theories, practices, approaches, beliefs, and philosophies.
How do you describe your Service Signature?
Getting Stuff Done
I used to manage a wonderful multidisciplinary team in East London, who prided themselves on going the extra mile for families on their teamwork and joined-up support. I remember an imposing senior manager visiting, and the staff sharing with her descriptions of their casework.
As she listened intently and I idly read the screen-saver on the computer behind where she was seated, I realised with dawning horror that it was repeatedly scrolling across the monitor “The East Welford Team* gets S*!%T done!!” It didn’t take long for me to find an excuse to show her another part of the office, making dagger-eyes at my team to get them to change the message to something more positively corporate-sounding pronto!
But I was very proud of that team, and I was reminded of them last week when I walked into the Project Room at work to offer to make a round of tea. I found Marianne (one of our team co-ordinators) talking excitedly with Emma and Theresa (two of our Family Workers).
The subject of the discussion was the intensive afternoon-into-early evening they had had the day before, “holed” up in an office at a GP surgery with a parent, supporting her and making phone call after phone call to get the various agencies to respond to the crisis she and her children were dealing with. The excitement didn’t arise from anger or triumphalism related to the battle with other services; it certainly wasn’t taking satisfaction in or credit from someone else’s misfortunes.
But what those team members were remembering and celebrating was a job well done and achieved through team work and partnership. Just for those 15 minutes, Emma and Theresa deserved their place under the spotlight, although to be honest most of their weeks are filled with unheralded skill and hard work to help parents, children and even other professionals achieve their potential. Marianne said that from this point on she would call them Starsky and Hutch because of their partnership, dynamism and commitment to getting the job done – even under intense pressure.
That made me smile, but also reflect on at what point we in the voluntary sector stopped talking about the “work”? And by the ‘work’ I mean the hands on engagement with and support given to our service users and beneficiaries. Don’t get me wrong – I know there are lots of people involved with charities whose work is little acknowledged and often not recognised.
A voluntary sector bulletin recently dropped into my inbox from a major national newspaper, and to judge from its contents, charities like mine are increasingly effective in our campaigning about we do, striving to identify outcomes for what we do, tweeting and blogging about it, and of course fundraising for what we do. All the people who undertake those tasks and who support the aims and values of their charities deserve to be appreciated and applauded. But lately, it doesn’t seem (purely a hunch – no hard research was undertaken) that we explain what it is we do exactly “to help”. Or that we celebrate that work.
Yes, we do talk about outcomes – but rarely about how those outcomes were achieved, even if it was only by simple but vital acts such as providing a space to talk, enabling respite for carers by finding children a holiday scheme, or setting up an awards ceremony and disco for young disabled volunteers so they can party and have fun like many of their non-disabled peers.
Under the stress and pressure, our wonderful staff carry on talking the talk and walking the walk. Sometimes in the face of hostility, but also receiving more gratitude and thanks from our service users than people would ever expect was expressed. Last month I conducted the final observation of our social work student on a visit to a parent and family she had supported during her placement.
Amongst lots of really concrete outcomes achieved by the student, including getting the children into an afterschool club and linking the family with advice around a child’s special educational needs, the parent told me that “you couldn’t wish for a better person to work with you”. When I passed it on I saw how my student positively glowed at that piece of feedback. And what could be a stronger endorsement than that someone is willing to open up some of the most private areas of their own or their family’s life to you?
If something is not talked about it is effectively unseen and unacknowledged. What we do – the day job – is a big part of our identity and people need to feel able to be proud of it. They may not look or act like Starsky and Hutch, but every day voluntary sector staff contribute to thousands of supportive conversations in bedsits, flats, living rooms, hostels, interview rooms and group work sessions to create the opportunity for positive changes in people’s lives. And we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about how they are getting sh…I mean STUFF! done.
Self-Connection Through Daily Mindfulness
If you are anything like me, you may have confused mindfulness with meditation; something requiring you to be in a certain space, a particular position and removed from distraction or other activity.
Well, I’ve come to learn that while mindfulness practice can be enhanced through meditation, they are not one in the same.
Mindfulness is about bringing conscious awareness and presence to what is right in front of us or perhaps, what is occurring within us as an emotional, physical, spiritual or intellectual sensation.
The Heart of the Matter
Before I had even heard the term mindfulness, I received a teaching that helped me to understand it more clearly today.
Many years ago, I attended a silent retreat centered in Buddhist meditation practice. We spent many hours in a seated position. Silent. During the course of the weekend, we were also introduced to chanting.
A space had been carved in the silence for a question and answer period on the last day of the retreat. Most of the questions focused on the accuracy of the chant; saying the right words, holding the right tone and doing it in the right order.
Our teacher for the weekend guided us to recognize that it was not about right or wrong, that the clarity of the words, the volume of the chant or the correct order or perfect pronunciation was not at the heart of the matter.
We were reminded that feeling into the practice was the most crucial element. The ability to hold a pure and objective intention to simply engage in the moment within our hearts would be more powerful than a day’s worth of disconnected chanting.
So, when mindfulness became a hot topic of conversation and sought after state of being, I was reminded of this learning as I struggled to understand what mindfulness would look like in my day to day life.
Some of the essential ingredients involved in mindfulness include acceptance, non-judgement, willingness to observe, openness to feeling, and release of resistance.
Mindfulness. It’s a Gateway to Self-Connection
Here’s what I have noticed. Mindfulness leads to self-connection. Mindfulness is a pathway to self-connection. In self-connection, I have a front row seat to my own experience including the emotions, the feelings, the thoughts, the beliefs, the desires of my heart and I become intrigued and curious about this exploration.
Using mindfulness as a gateway to self-connection makes it easier to stay out of the stories that we often create in order to make sense of our circumstances in a logical and intellectual way. This can be helpful or harmful depending on the details of the storyline.
In a mindful place as you experience deeper levels of self-connection you can begin to cultivate a deeper capacity to witness yourself. You become the observer who is deeply present and engaged AND also open to whatever arises for you through your senses. And this is where self-compassion is born.
Self-compassion is the capacity to hold space for our own evolution and process without expecting it to be different in any way and to love ourselves through it all. There is no need to resist what we discover, no need to berate ourselves for anything and no need to fix. Self-compassion is the utter acceptance and unconditional love for you.
And guess what? This depth of self-connection and self-compassion expands your ability to offer connection and compassion to others. Real, genuine, authentic connection and compassion.
Is there anything more powerful than that within the context of transformative relationships?
It is a practice that deepens your experience of joy and softens your times of sorrow. It is a practice that provides a glimpse, moment by moment into your authentic nature. Your most powerful gifts of service to others is found right there.
With a mindful approach, you can move away from “right and wrong,” step out of the contrast of “good and bad” and embrace what is in this moment. The only “right and wrong” that becomes important is what feels right or wrong to your own heart.
Conscious Service in Mental Health
Nowadays, we are experiencing an almost epidemic of mental health challenges. Most of us will be touched by mental illness in some way, at some point in our lives. Whether this shows up as an experience with a loved one or a struggle that we encounter in our personal lives, the challenges of mental health are many.
We live in a fast-paced society with greater and greater demands on our time, attention and energy. This alone can lead to an imbalance in our lives that affects our basic self-care and eventually our overall sense of well-being.
Most of us can expect to be touched by loss and grief throughout our lifetime, which comes with its own unique type of mental and emotional challenge as we come to cope and heal from significant changes in our lives. When we are not in a state of balance to begin with, it is common that the process of loss and grief could potentially become complicated in nature.
Turning to alcohol and other drugs as a coping strategy can make us vulnerable to developing more significant mental health challenges. If we are using substances to escape our lives and our feelings, we are on a slippery slope indeed. Most of us know this and yet, there are staggering statistics to indicate that the power of an addiction or addictive tendency can be highly seductive.
Quick fixes, avoidance, and the general resistance of discomfort in our society do not support the slowing down that is often most necessary when faced with mental health and emotional challenges.
Vocations of Service
For those of us involved in Vocations of Service, we might experience a susceptibility to the development of stress related imbalances, emotional exhaustion, and mental health challenges. We know that there is a high risk of burnout in any helping profession. But, let’s remember, high risk does not mean it’s inevitable.
How we care for our own mental health is just as important as being present for others who may be experiencing their own challenges.
There are also those individuals who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses that are not part of what any of us might expect to experience in our lifetime. Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depression are just a few examples of common mental illnesses that people are experiencing today. As Service Providers, it is up to us to learn about various mental health challenges while remaining open and curious to the personal and subjective experiences of those living with it. These people are our greatest teachers when it comes to learning what will most serve.
Resistance Creates Isolation and Suffering
Stigma about mental illness whether formally diagnosed or part of a natural response to something traumatic makes accessing support and services that much more challenging. Our resistance to talking openly about mental health creates a barrier to the very energy and support we all need in order to strengthen our emotional and mental capacity and open up to healing.
We tend to think that mental illness is all in someone’s head. They are crazy and insane ~ not living in the real world. And that in some way, there must be something inherently wrong with them to have this “condition.” Or better yet, maybe, they are being punished for something.
Mental illness makes us uncomfortable. We have made leaps and bounds with regard to opening the discussion and we still have a long way to go. I think the fact of the matter is that so many more people are experiencing mental illness and mental health challenges that we are forced to begin talking more about it. It is no longer the plight of those on the fringes of society ~ those people we can simply ignore so we fool ourselves into believing that we are somehow immune to it ourselves.
Suicide rates are on the rise in our society. People are choosing to take their lives in response to overwhelming pain. For a long time, suicide has been a taboo subject ~ one that we don’t really want to talk about. But, we must. We must make it acceptable to talk about the emotional and mental suffering that many experience with as much ease as we discuss the physical challenges that people live with.
No one is to blame when it comes to mental illness and at the same time, we can all take deep personal responsibility for our own health on a holistic level and for our capacity for compassion when it comes to serving those who find themselves in the thick of a mental health crisis.
Linda Stalters is a retired advanced practice registered nurse and CEO of Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America (SARDAA).
Linda has broad ranging experience as a clinical practitioner, educator, advocate, organizer, and speaker. She is committed to driving improved patient care through education, patient advocacy, and clinical practice.
Hearing Voice of Support is Linda’s latest initiative to promote acceptance, support, hope, treatment and recovery for the millions of people living with schizophrenia and related brain disorders.
Let’s talk about mental health. We all have a stake in this.
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