On being productive

Some of my clients make it really difficult to be compassionate, but I try to remind myself that I may be the one person they can expect it from with any sort of consistency.

My coworkers would likely say that it isn’t necessarily in my job description and that oftentimes, compassion makes my job more difficult than it need be and our stated goal of self-sufficiency for our clients less likely.

I guess, maybe, they believe that being nice gets in the way of helping people.

My idea is that helping takes many forms… some social workers do it best by being curt and all-business and never showing a bit of their own humanity with clients. That doesn’t work so well for me, as I’m not such a good pretender.

Anyway… I often feel as if I spend an inordinate amount of my workday talking to people.

Okay… that’s probably an outright lie.


My internal editor stops me, sometimes, to remind me that there are a few people who read this blog who actually know me and who’ll recognize a lie that I try to pass along to all of you invisible internet friends.


I spend a lot of time listening to people. I don’t generally have the chance to say very much at all. Clients like to yell at me a lot. I don’t so much like that; in fact it makes me really uncomfortable and trembly with pent-up smart aleck responses to their hostility. But still I try to really listen to them. Listen to whatever it is that is at the root of their anger or their hurt or their fear. They’re not upset with me, usually, directly, but instead it’s their way of venting with someone who they imagine can change things for them, help them, maybe make things better.

It’s my job, somedays, just to let them yell.

They’re not all like this, thank heavens. Some clients are just looking for reassurance, or support, or someone to share their hard-won victories with. I listen to those clients, too, and celebrate with them.

This really isn’t productive though, right? It does nothing to reduce the piles of paper that always threaten to engulf me. There’s no visible product to present to my boss at the end of the day.

I guess for me a productive day looks much the same as any other. I wake up happy and I accomplish something, hopefully. But I can’t ever feel really satisfied unless there’s a sense that I’ve contributed in some small way to someone else’s welfare. I feel most grateful when given the opportunity to share a moment with someone – to listen in a way someone hasn’t been listened to before or to tell a story that gets someone thinking differently. Then I feel productive and as if the day’s been worth living.

That moment came for me today, after being screamed at by various others, from a client with mental health issues. He’s taken to calling me every couple days to check in and usually I just “yes” my way through any conversation with him in order to get back to the important paperwork in front of me. Today, though, I stopped to really listen and to appreciate the blessing of a client who wanted nothing from me, had no complaint or pressing need, but instead just wanted to say hello and to tell me about his day.

I think we all need help at one time or another and need to be able to depend on compassion from others, be it frazzled social workers or strangers, even. Compassion feels good, helps us, and makes the world a nicer place, somehow.

Even when it gives me a headache and makes me want to put my head in the oven.


These pics, from a less *productive* moment during my day in the field yesterday; from in and around the delapidated casino on the boardwalk at Asbury Park.

Picture-taking is another productive thing I do for myself most days; a chance to see and feel without much thought or concern for the end product.

9 thoughts on “On being productive”

  1. There is just so much pain out there. My problem at times is that I want to sometime blurt out to them their part in the drama that surrounds their lives, but alas, that is not what they need to hear. They just need to be HEARD and validated in some way. Kindness goes a long way and sometimes just listening and trying to understand is all the balm they need in the moment. Bless you for what you do Laura.

  2. I think you have it — that the paperwork is “productive” in the eyes of your boss (and of her boss, etc.), but sometimes the best for the client is a connection, right? Isn’t it that they aren’t connected to “the system,” or they don’t have a family or community of support, that leads them to where they are?

    When I was teaching (in another lifetime), we tried to ask, “what is the best way to support this child in his/her learning?” Maybe sometimes the best way you have found to support your clients is to listen and honor their voices. And you’ve found it is different with each client. Responding to them on an individual basis seems to be the best for them, and you, even if it doesn’t supply the paperwork. Pfft! as you say.

    There is so much haunting beauty in the stillness and quiet of the deserted boardwalk casinos. Your photos are great.

    Wayne, PA

  3. You’re a good person, Laura. And I’m sure you’re a good social worker. I have a grandaughter who is a social worker. She’s very young. I don’t think she has really “got it” quite yet. I pray she does soon.

  4. You do not seem like the kind of person that anyone would want to yell at. The fact that some of the people you deal with NEED to yell at you speaks volumes about the aches in this world. Goodness, they have no one who cares about them, or they have deep anger, or their lives are just plain crap–so they yell at you.
    I wish you deep reserves of strength–your job may be one of the most important ones around. Without you, who can say what the people in such deep need could do.

  5. How’d ya like one of those jobs where you screw tops on toothpaste tubes all day.

    Easier? Maybe? Rewarding … sort of. Keeps ya coming to work the next day? duh ………..

    You haven’t got the best of jobs but you’ve got one worth doing! Sort of like head maintneance man of the House of Rabbits!

  6. Jayne: Lots of people can’t hear that they’ve any part in the creation of their own problems… I don’t guess that pointing out the obvious is much help.

    Heather: I think some are too connected to the system and learn to rely on it for everything, even emotional support.

    The challenges of meeting the individual needs of students… pfft… I’d rather do social work… at least it’s one person at a time, rather than a classroomfull of needs with a couple making funny faces at each other while you’re not looking.


    I was surprised with how these couple pics turned out… thanks!

    Bobbie: I haven’t got a clue, really! Just because I’ve been at this for a while…

    There are a couple people I work with who just amaze me everyday.

    Lynne: I did, yeah, and needed to.


    Yolanda: I can only imagine. People go kinda nuts at the holidays… do you see that in your job, too?

    KGMom: Ha! I wonder at that all the time… others are nasty and never get the hard time I do. I think I must be inviting it, somehow.

    The fact is that when I do lose my temper and react to their anger with some of my own, I feel so badly for it.

    Rabbit’s Guy: Point well-taken. Thank you.

    Have I mentioned that I sometimes dream of a job picking tomatoes?


  7. You deserve many blessings, Laura. I have an idea what the folks sound like on the other end of the phone. I talk to prospective students who will never be college material, encourage them to try harder and get tutoring…congratulate them when they do well, and console those who don’t.

    Of course, there are a few I swear to after I hang up the phone.


    I imagine you are the best at your job. Wise mouth and all :o)


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