Distinguishing Between Enabling and Supportive Relationships

My thanks for the blog request on this specific topic.

I’d be hard pressed to think of a housing support worker/case manager that deliberately tries to make the life of any client worse. People go into this type of work because they tend to want to help others. But I think we need to take time to reflect on when helping becomes hurting – even when it is unintentional…when our actions aren’t actually helpful at all. Understanding the differences between enabling our clients and supporting our clients is an important part of self-reflection as a practitioner and is an essential distinction to be made in the type of help we are providing to people.

I look at support as the art and act of encouraging a person to achieve goals. It is the function of working with the clients we have the privilege of assisting, not working for them. We want the individual to deliberate before making decisions, have information to make informed choices, and to experience and understand the consequences of their actions. In a supportive relationship, we want our clients to accept full responsibility for their life – to increase their self-awareness and self-management to the point where they can reframe and rebuild their life. Through supportive relationships we are respectfully presenting opportunities – at times challenging opportunities – for positive life changes while increasing opportunities for growth, learning and awareness.

I look at enabling as the act of encouraging or failing to prevent a person from engaging in unhealthy or self-destructive behavior. It can be deliberate or through omission. In this situation, support staff tend to do things for their clients instead of with their clients. The worker is more likely to try and shield their client from decision-making or painful experiences. They are more likely to make excuses for ongoing behavior. They are less likely to focus on motivating change, and instead can become experts at reinforcing the status quo. In an enabling relationship, the “help” provided by the worker is hurting more than it is helping.

One of the ways to examine our work as practitioners is to ask ourselves about the motivation for why we are providing assistance in a particular way for a particular person. If our motivation is to “meet people where they are at” and then increase learning, inspire change, teach different approaches/behavior, allow people to gain greater independence, empower people to make mistakes that they can learn from – then we are supporting them. If our motivation is to shield people from consequences or pain, because we feel sorry for them, to keep them engaged with us because we fear that they will never do well without us, cover-up deficits, to do things for people that they can and should do for themselves – then we are enabling them.

It isn’t a matter of being nice or being mean – which is an argument I have heard before. I think friendly professionalism is warranted in supportive relationships. It doesn’t make us less compassionate. I’ve also met self-interested, defensive and dramatic guilt-using enablers.

Workers that know how to support their clients are more likely going to see goal attainment in the individualized service plan and report a sense of gratitude and fulfillment in their work because they experience changes with the people they are working with. Workers that tend to have more enabling relationships are more likely going to talk about being “stuck” in getting clients to move forward and are more likely going to be unhappy in their work – even feeling a sense of resentment or false sense of control over their clients at times. Enablers, however, can also feel “wanted” by their clients, which again creates a false sense of importance in the client’s life.

Through supportive relationships we should see incremental – and at times iterative – decreased acuity in components of an individual’s life through our support. In an enabling relationship we will likely see fewer improvements in overall acuity across the individual’s life. In a supportive relationship we should see strong evidence of a recovery-orientation – reinforcing hope and a future-orientation in a person’s life. In an enabling relationship we are more likely to see living in the moment or the past.

Remember that our goal in providing supports to people once housed is to help them achieve greater independence. We want them to integrate as much as possible into the broader community. Should they need ongoing supports for things like parenting, mental wellness, physical ailments, addictions, etc. we want them to get connected to other professionals in the community that can meet these needs long-term. We are brokers and advocates, not healers or fixers. So, if you are helping your client build a bridge to greater self-sufficiency then you are being supportive; enabling is an open-ended commitment to co-dependence (whether that is conscious or sub-conscious).

Some specific things to think about in your work that may be helpful:

  • Ensure prospective clients are making an informed decision to enter into a program with your supports and that they understand the nature of the supports that you are offering;
  • Present housing options for clients to choose from, and avoid the notion of housing placements or that we know best where people should live;
  • When a client wants to see a dentist, doctor, psychiatrist, etc, make the appointment with them, not for them – and work towards them doing it on their own in the future;
  • Motivate change by presenting scenarios for them to consider relative to the goals in their case plan – focus on change;
  • Be clear that your role is not indefinite and that you want to assist the person with integrating with other community opportunities and resources;
  • Teach and model skills with an eye towards self-sufficiency in the future;
  • Ask yourself what your motivation is for suggesting particular courses of action for your clients to consider;
  • Debrief mistakes and consequences with an eye to realizing the impact of what has occurred while maintaining a future perspective…that lessons can be learned.

I encourage you to think about your practice. Self-assess whether your interactions with clients are supportive instead of enabling. Resolve to make service improvements to be as supportive as possible. Doing so will be better for the client and yourself.

Iain De Jong is the President and CEO of OrgCode Consulting. As a practitioner, he has had to confront his own enabling behaviors to become a more effective, supportive practitioner. Through self-awareness, he has assisted hundreds of housing support practitioners in becoming more supportive and less enabling in their work.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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