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Building Relationships Virtually

Being confronted with challenging behaviour is difficult at the best of times. When all contact is virtual, it becomes even more problematic. Where I have been able to use my body language, facial expressions, eye contact or gestures to be able to manage difficult situations in the past, I am resigned to words alone. The importance of building rapport and meaningful relationships is central to all the work I have ever carried out; without which growth is compromised. So, I am rising to the challenge of cultivating relationships virtually in our new-world existence. 

Initial phone calls to introduce myself have become pivotal opportunities with first impressions counting more than ever. I am dedicating more time to asking how my clients are, sharing a bit about myself, using appropriate humour wherever possible and demonstrating empathy wherever I can from the outset. I am being flexible beyond the usual, offering extra support wherever needed. I am sharing my core belief, at the first given opportunity, that we are, as humans, flawed and that this is ok; it is not the regretful acts that define us but how we grow and learn from them that determines our true worth. 

With all this in mind, I have still encountered challenges; resistance, abuse, reluctance, non-engagement. It is in these moments I remind myself just how difficult it must be to acknowledge self-made behaviours that have resulted in police involvement. For most, this is their first encounter with the criminal justice system and all the shock, and shame, that comes with it. For some, this extends to the realisation that their actions are indeed illegal and consequential. I am also acutely aware that we all come with our own ‘dirty laundry’, but that most of us are not asked to air it with someone we don’t know, let alone will never meet in person. 

These are the challenges for those we are working with. Our challenge is to navigate our way through, while attempting a unity with the client so we face and overcome each challenge, collaboratively. I am aware this all sounds rather ideological and of course, these are all examples of when challenging situations are dealt with successfully. It doesn’t always work out this way and so when it doesn’t, relational bond and engagement are affected. When the client takes two steps back, we find ourselves pushed further and further away, compromising our ability to support change.

I have experienced this first hand with a client who refused to answer my phone calls from a withheld number. When he did answer, I was met with what can only be described as rage. It took perseverance from me (and a reminder to myself that I don’t know everything that is going on for the client) to establish that he had received threatening calls from withheld numbers before and his rage was in actual fact, fear. My initial assumption that he was simply being resistant, difficult or avoiding having to engage with the programme had ignited a sizable rift in our rapport, from the outset. My bad and I own it. But, I did persevere and, when I could get him on the phone again, asked him what was going on for him, and guess what, he opened up. Just that attempt to try to scratch beneath the surface and hear what he had to say helped us to mend the very obvious rupture. Every obstacle he raised, we explored and alternatives were sought, together as a collective. We had managed to re-establish relational alignment in order to work together. Since then, he has confided in me his difficulties, shared his feelings and fears like no other client has.

I suppose in summary, building relationships in a limited time frame is challenging; building relationships in a limited time frame without ever meeting in person is even more so. We need to draw on core relational skill sets in order to fast track rapport building if we are to meaningfully support our clients in their journeys.

My first experience working with children in the Criminal Justice System whilst working as a probation officer in Bermuda for three years where Probation Service manages the risk of convicted individuals aged eleven to ninety-nine!

I must admit, when I arrived for my first day at work in Bermuda, I was not looking forward to working with children. I had memories of horror stories told by friends who had worked in residential children’s homes in the UK and to be quite honest; I was scared. However, my experience challenged my unconscious bias about children who offend, and I became keenly aware of how vulnerable, impressionable some children are and learned how to adapt to situations with Safeguarding and welfare of children clearly now at the forefront of my mind. Also, I found the skills I gained as a probation officer and my knowledge and training around trauma informed practice helped me remember how important it is to take the time to firstly listen carefully to hear and respond to the underlying needs that may be driving the behaviour. Once the needs have been explored, communication around meeting needs with pro social behaviour can start.

After my return to the UK, I was the liaison probation officer for the Youth Offending Service and NPS. Cases involving young people can be challenging, sad, and frustrating at times but it can also be enlightening and rewarding. I enjoy hearing the different perspectives young people have on society, hearing their thoughts on why they are friends with certain people, why they like certain things, what their goals are and exploring their emotions and feelings can lead to some interesting and hilarious conversations.

In 2022, I have begun supporting young people with completing a Hate Crime intervention with Redsnapper. The cases are so varied and concern speech and behaviour that can be highly sensitive, embarrassing and confronting for the young person involved. However, the workbook materials are not punitive or judgmental and instead allow for a strength-based guided educational approach that develops thinking around the damaging effect on victims and how to make positive changes.

By Carianne Burr

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