SLP Corner: When You and Your Team are the Target
by Ruth Morgan, MS CCC-SLP
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” – Yoda
One thing (among hundreds of things) that was not taught in grad school was how to deal with anger. Not an SLP’s own anger, but the anger of parents directed towards school personnel. A speech pathologist may have followed an IEP to the letter, written appropriate notes, loved the child, consulted frequently with a teacher, conferenced with the parents–but still be confronted with anger. Perhaps another team member had slipped in their job, perhaps the child didn’t make adequate progress, perhaps the child was injured in school, perhaps the child isn’t included with nondisabled peers, perhaps there are too many kids in a classroom, perhaps….myriad things can happen. Or, perhaps the parents carry anger in their hearts regardless of how well a job is done. The speech pathologist, as a member of the school team, is often part of the collective target of someone’s angry feelings.
During my younger days, this phenomenon was very disconcerting—aghast at not being perceived as the modern day miracle worker, I would stew about little situations and work harder, jump higher, worry more, usually to no avail. Now, with additional gray hair and worry lines, I have some advice on how to help my younger colleagues cope with chronically angry people.
1. Prevention is the key—do your job. See the child as the IEP dictates, write progress reports, keep data, follow behavior plans, consult with the teachers and communicate with parents. Stay out of the hot seat.
2. When disagreements arise, or anger rears its head, it’s best not to argue. An online article I found by Timothy Dey describes the first step as this:
When beginning to deal with an angry person, the first step is always to listen. This is done with eye contact, but very few words, until the initial wave of angry energy pauses for the first time. During that interval, listen for the factual content of what that person thinks is their concern, while letting the emotional content wash by without “hooking” you. Don’t put much effort into sharing information at this point. The person who is very angry is not in a state where they can absorb much of anything you have to say, even if they would benefit from hearing it. They may often misinterpret your quick verbal response or problem-solving as a way of getting rid of them and their needs.
A great metaphor to hold in mind as you listen during this first
step is that of a great ocean wave crashing over you as you stand in the surf, or perhaps a volcano erupting with hot rock and ash. There is no point in trying to shout over the noise until the initial outburst is complete…..
So sometimes, in meetings, I wait until the right time to talk. And, I try to not talk a lot.
3. When it is time to talk, Timothy Dey suggests this approach: When the pause in their verbal torrent finally comes, briefly mirror the factual content with the goal of letting the other person know that you’ve heard the core of their complaint accurately. This can sound something like: “So if I heard you correctly, you’re saying …”or “What I hear you saying is this …”, but you should always use your own judgment in choosing language that sounds natural to each situation.
4. At that point is where solutions to problems can be explored. Most major problems are out of the control of an SLP, and it’s helpful to accept that. As a team, we hopefully can all work together to explore solutions, but I’ve participated in meetings that are in need of outside mediators. If an objective person is needed, then so be it. Mediation often tempers anger.
5. Other helpful advice in dealing with a potentially angry parent is to realize that you and that parent will never be BFFs. There is no need to connect through social media, no exchanging gifts at Christmas, or sharing personal information. An SLP may think that this will help, but ultimately, inappropriate friendliness on the part of the SLP may raise expectations of parents to an unreasonable level. Stay professional, and you’ll have a better chance at being treated with more respect.
6. It’s very helpful to not ruminate about issues. Talking incessantly about difficult meetings, or problems with parents doesn’t make for any solutions. Debriefing after a strenuous meeting or encounter is one thing, but obsessive rehashing is tiresome and unhelpful.
So those are my little words of wisdom. Anger in parents comes from many sources and is hard to bear. Sometimes it’s justified; sometimes it’s part of their grieving process; and sometimes, parents are just angry people. People from all walks of life have children with disabilities, and often there is a hotbed of emotions that can erupt. Speech-language pathologists can and do learn with experience to counsel parents and react in a professional manner when emotions take over.
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