In brief

In this, the latest in our series of lockdown reflections by our network of observers, Relate’s Director of Services, Ben Collins, reflects on what lockdown has taught us about power within service delivery. 

Another busy week in lock down – feeling tired, picking up that others are too. One of the real tonics to that have been a couple of conversations I’ve been involved in this week reflecting on some of the learning so far from lockdown. These were conversations convened through the lens of civil society and technology, pulled together respectively by colleagues at the Better Way project and a piece of work supported by the National Lottery Community Fund. There seems to be an emerging consensus that we have seen much more collaboration. Just the mix of inspiring and fascinating people on the calls bears testimony to that. 

But another of the themes which seems to be emerging and the one I wanted to focus on here is centred around the notion of power – specifically how our lockdown world has caused it to shift. I work for an organisation which focuses on relationship support. One of the main ways we do that is via counselling.

As a counselling organisation, we have something to say about power in relationships. It’s almost always a feature of the issues clients bring to their session – helping people to understand it is a key ingredient in change.

We spend considerable time and effort trying to work through what to do when we witness abuse of power. And we know there are many complexities around power in people seeking help and support – or at least receiving it – in the first place. The Covid lockdown has dialled up all of these. 

But the shift in power during lockdown is more subtle and in many ways bigger for us an organisation. When you come to counselling, you are encouraged to enter into a type of “contract” – this is irrespective of the payment mechanism. This contract emerges from an initial discussion and is an explicit commitment to work on a set of issues – what you will need to bring to the process, and what the practitioner will bring.

What lockdown has done is highlight some of the implicit associations with that commitment.

Pre-lockdown, clients would come to a counselling room arranged by us. Considerable effort went into making that place private, free from intrusion, and safe. We had control of the conversation – we could see who was involved, there were clear markers – the time in the waiting room before hand, the knowledge that people left the appointment and would have some sort of journey home. We make some attempt to manage the record for the session – the principle of no recording, being able to see if someone were physically taking notes themselves. When you deliver services via webcam you don’t have any of that. You have to work with the client to create those, and rely on them to do it. The implicit terms of the contract have shifted. 

Which leads to the second, more subtle and perhaps more fundamental shift in power – who is bringing what expertise to the room?

As the “service provider” we bring a set of skills which will enable two people to stop, take a step back, think about themselves and the other person, then re-engage in a different way to create a changed relationship. This set of skills is a mixture of techniques to manage that conversation – complicated by the fact it is two people – and an awareness and insight into the range of issues which come up in relationships. This latter is a key part of the “normalising” often so important in the process. Strangely perhaps, at points of stress, we take comfort in knowing we are no different from millions of others. Having the credibility and authority to say this is a key part of our offer. The skill is in knowing how to align the presenting issue to those experiences common to so many others. By laying out our stall in this way, we both claim “expert” status, but also, and crucially, we are afforded it. 

So what does the client bring then? This is the exciting bit. The client brings themselves. They bring an amazing array of experiences, of behaviours, of beliefs. And they have lived alongside others with an equally amazing but crucially different array of experiences, behaviours and beliefs.

They already know about navigating the complexities of relationships. They already know that they aren’t the only ones. It’s just sometimes they need reminding. 

What the client and us as the provider jointly bring is the space and the time in which this process can happen. 

So what might be the wider lessons for all of this? Well, in part we don’t know yet, and that’s the point of these conversations. It is certainly important in thinking through what do we do next.

Once lockdown restrictions are eased, do we just go back to way we used to do things? Surely we can structure our services to be more flexible – keeping the new services alongside the old ones? Clients can have more choice.

But perhaps the simpler but more powerful message is to take a step back and challenge the assumptions implicit and complicit in the way we deliver services. To solve a problem, you need objectivity, you need insight, you need some skills and techniques. But have we become perhaps a little lazy in who we ask and crucially allow to bring those?

In our efforts to define services, in our efforts to define our own roles, in our efforts to affirm those two things – a two way process often driven by money and funding – do we miss the opportunity to give power by being more explicit in what we both bring to the process? 

Clearly there is more in power/collaboration dynamic to be explored, but that’s a topic for the next time. Meantime, the weekend beckons. Must go and find something to mix with that tonic.