There is no doubt that we live in a highly competitive world. Whilst competition may be argued to be a necessary and an inevitable part of life, it is the level of competition in society and the associated pressures that drive so many of the illnesses that health professionals are dealing with on a daily basis. And so the antidote to competition and its effects must surely be a healthier form of human encounter and interaction, namely collaboration.
As a counselling psychologist in private practice, I therefore believe that health care professionals have an opportunity and obligation to engage with our clients/patients in predominantly collaborative ways as a front line offensive to the deleterious effects of competition.
Human being are robust creatures with well-developed defence mechanisms designed to not only keep us alive, but maximise on our potential in order to thrive. However, when the environment we live in becomes essentially toxic our ability to function optimally slowly becomes undermined. Whilst medical science has done wonders in advancing the quality and quantity of our lives, the number of pollutants and free-radicals that confront us every day is surely on the increase. And so the human race finds itself under increasing environmental pressure as the pace of life to just keep up grow exponentially.
So many illnesses, particularly diseases of the mind, have their origins in fear based experiences characterised by a threat to personal safety. These often originate in childhood, be it as a result of heavy handed discipline, absent parents, divorce and the breakdown of a family system, or the effects of poverty and unemployment, to name a few of the risk factors. Whatever the cause, the effect is generally an experience of broken trust and the development of various defence mechanisms and belief systems based upon the world (and those in the world around us) being dangerous and threatening. We then become survivors of these primary wounds or traumas, which can affect our thinking, feeling and behaviour patterns towards our environment, so setting us up for a pattern of self-fulfilling prophecies of doom, gloom and destruction.
Unfortunately, history has a remarkable ability to repeat itself as we tend to get stuck in the very same dysfunctional interpersonal dynamics later in life, which are largely competitive and destructive, passing them on to the next generation. Hence the vital role and immense responsibility we as health professionals have for encouraging healing, and restoring wholeness to peoples’ lives. For it is to us that a beleaguered populace turns for help in hard times, and it is also to us that the profound privilege is given to change the dance of human history from brutal competition to enlightened collaboration. And so we carry the possibility of hope and breakthrough, when all other avenues and attempts at coping have been exhausted.
So what does it mean to be in a collaborative relationship? There are three key requirements for collaboration to take place. The first is SAFETY, which means that our clients/patients need to experience us in ways that make them feel fundamentally safe. Carl Rogers, one of the great psychologists of the 20th century who founded ‘Client-Centred-Therapy’ spoke about the concept of unconditional positive regard for the client. Remembering it takes courage to be vulnerable and admit to having a problem of some sort, we need to honour our client’s efforts and responsibility for finding healing, by extending unconditional positive regard. This means showing utmost consideration and respect for our clients and avoiding (and personally confronting) any preconceived judgements or prejudices about our clients.
The second requirement is EQUALITY. The power balance needs to be understood and is largely weighted against the client and in favour of the so called ‘expert’, being us the health professional. I believe there are two experts in the room, each with a profound ability to understand their own human condition. What we are looking for is not another unnecessary and counter-productive power imbalance which so often drives our competitive, paternalistic world, namely a parent-child relationship, but one of equality known as an adult-adult relationship. This kind of relationship encourages autonomy and responsibility, based on mutual consideration and respect. The communication principle of “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” is of great value here (Steven Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People).
The final requirement is EMPOWERMENT. We need to encourage our clients to take ownership of their lives and the condition or situation they are dealing with by empowering them to do so. This may involve educating them with the best explanation we can into their condition, sharing our theoretical understandings, and giving them the opportunity to ask questions. Knowledge is power, and it is our responsibility to share the knowledge we have gained with our clients, in order to assist them in making the best choices regarding their health.
To conclude, we are incredibly privileged to be health care professionals. In this cruel, crazy, competitive world, we get to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem, every day. But with this privilege comes an even greater responsibility that every patient we see has an ‘Aha’ moment, which is characterized by our joint humanity and willingness to extend ourselves for the good of another. ‘Ubuntu’ means “I am because you are”. Nowhere in society can and should Ubuntu be more fully experienced on a daily basis than in the way we care for the sick, lost, lonely, hurting and hungry in our world.