The Therapeutic Recreation Assistant Diploma is a combined delivery program, which means most of the course is delivered online. This week we reconvened on campus as a class for the first time since the beginning of the program. It was great to see everyone in person after spending the past six months interacting online.
We met when the program started in May 2019 for orientation before our interactions moved online and to text messaging. It is remarkable how close we became over a short period. I would attribute much of this to the forums we participated in as a group, which provided a platform for us to share our life experiences as it related to the material. We dug into the personal details of our lives, and when you do that, you can really get to know people and getting to know people is a key element for building relationships with our future clients.
How do we build relationships?
One of the most effective ways to build relationships is by asking questions and there are various approaches to this technique. The key to making someone comfortable enough to share their personal stories and build a relationship is to skillfully use the art of questioning. Asking someone a question like, “How are you?” may elicit a long drawn out explanation but typically, the answers are brief – “Fine, good, excellent”. We rarely get to the truth of how a person is doing with this approach.
If we position our question a little differently and ask someone, “Tell me about your day!”, we may get a more honest and thorough explanation. In my experience, most people want to tell you more about themselves but sometimes we impede them from opening up with the questions we ask.
One of the techniques we learned to open a conversation is using ice breaker questions such as “What’s your zodiac sign?”, or “What’s your favourite food?”. These kinds of questions are more likely to reveal a little piece of someone.
Open-ended questions and narrowing techniques
In our Therapeutic Recreation courses, we learned how open-ended questions can help us get to know our clients better. Ice breaker questions or questions that make you think are great tools for this purpose.
For example, you could ask “If you were only able to remember two special memories for the rest of your life, which ones would you choose?”. The person would have to mentally scroll through all their memories and think about what makes a memory more important than others. This may be an overwhelming exercise for some older adults, but it may also provoke some deep discussions.
As an alternative, you could use a narrowing technique to ask them something more specific, such as, “What is a favourite Christmas vacation memory?” This focuses the question to a more precise timeline or event while still extracting personal memories. With this line of questioning, it’s important to be aware that other linked recollections may accompany the recalled memory.
For instance, they might remember the smell of Grandma’s shortbread cookies baking in the oven but this memory may also remind them of when she passed away. They might even remember the way the Christmas tree lights would twinkle and reflect from the wall, creating a warm glow in the family room. All those memories could resurface from one simple question.
Our questions may bring up some difficult memories and while this may be uncomfortable, it’s part of the therapeutic process. Brené Brown tells us that emotions are either on or off and you cannot select only the ones you want to feel. In other words, if we want to feel the positive emotions, we must open ourselves up to the challenging emotions. It is important to be okay with emotional responses to our questions and be aware of our triggers.
A recent in-class exercise asked us to identify the most important people, places and memories from our lives and we learned firsthand how quickly our triggers can be set off. I was no exception to this change in emotional state. As I wrote down my answers, my emotions were in check. However, as I began to share my responses with the class, a trigger I had not anticipated caught me off guard and I lost my resolve. In a very short period, I went from having my emotions under control to a crying, runny-nosed mess. Lucky for me, supportive classmates surrounded me in a safe learning environment.
In addition to experiencing a trigger, I also learned how a Therapeutic Recreation Assistant should handle that kind of situation. Our instructor walked us through it, explaining what to do and shared examples. It is important to note that while this exchange took roughly 30 minutes, the feelings that arose from what I shared lasted for several days as other memories continued to resurface.
This exercise made me realize the importance of establishing good relationships to ask these kinds of thought-provoking questions. It’s also important to not shy away from questions that challenge people to reflect and feel things. Although it may be uncomfortable, it can result in many profound outcomes.