When I graduated with my Master’s of Social Work (MSW) in 2013, I felt ready to tackle the world. I knew all about social justice. I had learned all the theories. I had learned about trauma. About the importance of community. The impact of racism and oppression. The endless cycle of poverty. White privilege. Cultural humility. I soaked it all in, and I couldn’t wait to start applying this knowledge in the field of social work. Cut to three weeks later, walking into my first day of work at a homeless shelter - and the undeniable truth that I had no idea what I was doing.
In those first few weeks, I saw extreme poverty. I heard stories of trauma and pain. Grief and loss. Anger toward the system. Toward their families. I saw the horrors of addiction and of untreated mental health issues. I shadowed a co-worker working with a suicidal client. I drove home each day feeling defeated. I didn’t know how to help my clients. I didn’t know what to say, how to fix their problems. Was I doing more harm than good? I was filled with doubt. How on earth could a middle-class white girl help people experiencing homelessness? I had no advice to give. Quitting was inevitable.
Cut to my boss inviting me to a two-day Motivational Interviewing training. Seriously? You want me to be away from my desk for two whole days? But as I entered the room and started listening to Ken Kraybill from t3, I knew that it was going to be time well spent. Over those 16 hours, I learned how to listen – truly listen – for the first time in my life. I learned that people don’t need to be fixed…they need to be heard. I learned that I didn’t have to have the answers – or the lived experience. I just needed the skills to help people find the answers within themselves. My mind was blown. My confidence grew. And most importantly, my client-care improved. Learn more about Motivational Interviewing from t3's Ken Kraybill.
After practicing my new skills on co-workers for days, I was ready to implement the spirit of MI into my daily work. I had been working with a “resistant” Veteran and his girlfriend unsuccessfully since my first day. They had been living in an RV that was impounded and ended up on the streets. Neither wanted government assistance. The Veteran refused to go to the VA. Both were chronically homeless, disabled, and refusing medical care. Both were tired of being told what to do. Both were “fine” living on the streets. This was before MI.
After MI, there was an undeniable change in the conversation. I started listening. I asked open-ended questions. We explored their concerns about financial assistance. I dug deeper when they used change talk. I affirmed their resilience. And slowly but surely, they started taking baby steps toward change. And, it was change they chose. I sat back and watched as he talked himself into going to the VA. I told her how courageous she was the day she enrolled in mental health services. I reflected back their fears about moving when they finally signed a lease. I realized that it was never resistance...they just needed to be in control. Years later, they still call me to talk through their major life changes. It’s a relationship I will cherish always.
Since my first day, I’ve gained the reputation at my agency of being able to connect with the “hard ones.” When people ask me how I do it, I always say the same thing…MI. Motivational Interviewing has made me a better social worker. It’s made me a better boss. A better wife. A better friend. And I volunteer my time now to go back and teach it to students in MSW programs. My hope is that they’ll feel more confident that first day on the job and truly believe that with the right tools, they can change the world.
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