The "Yes, You Can" Formula: Learning to Assume Capacity in OthersNov 16, 2022
The "Yes, You Can" Formula
I started working in the field of social services almost 30 years now, which is kind of unbelievable! It happened on accident, like many of the best things in life. I was 19 years-old, broke, and hadn't decided what in the heck I wanted to do with my life yet. I applied for a job as a receptionist at a subacute, long-term care facility that served people with developmental disabilities.
I remember walking through the courtyard to get to the office for my interview. I still recall the first kid I met there. His name was Shawn and I believe he was about 16 years-old at the time. He had cerebral palsy. He had a sunny disposition and drove his wheelchair like a maniac. I asked him if he could show me where the office was, which he was happy to do.
I met who would soon become my two bosses and who would also mentor me, teach me, and support me for which I will be forever grateful.
I was not hired for the receptionist position.
Rather, they thought I would be better suited to work in the activities department. WHAT A BLAST this job was! I got to take the kids and young adults to camps at the beach, to Disneyland, to sporting events, and all kinds of other fun things. The goal really was to maximize independence and quality of life; I think we did a pretty good job in both areas.
This is where I learned the fundamental rule of assuming someone can before you assume they can't. People typically rise to the occasion.
Anyways, I worked here for 5 years and soaked in every piece of information I could. I have never forgotten the people I served in this organization. I love them dearly and am so grateful to the staff and clients alike.
I am also 100% certain that without them, I would not have the privilege of doing the work I do now.
This position really highlighted so many things about me and others in terms of what kind of capacity is assumed in people. I hadn't fully known the expectations I carried about people who live with various kinds of challenges. I sure learned!
When we would go into the community, it was sometimes painful and uncomfortable to witness the way the average person interacted with our clients. Often, they were spoken to loudly and slowly as though they could not understand what was being said to them. They were congratulated for doing basic things (eating independently, getting from point A to point B, getting dressed).
Sometimes our clients weren't able to speak clearly, or their bodies didn't work properly, but this was no reflection on their IQ. Some were far brighter than I am. Many had children of their own. They live independently. They worked. And they did all of this with challenges that a lot of us don't even have to think about.
What I found was that the disability that the individual was handed was compounded by those who assumed they were incapable or who did not give them the opportunity to do for themselves. The more people do for you, the less you do for yourself.
This is how institutionalization compounds impairments - a lack of opportunity to do for yourself paired with the expectation of "can't."
I have carried this awareness with me throughout my entire profession. Assuming someone can't do something is contagious. If you believe it, they believe it. And then there is no one left to believe in them.
As a trauma therapist (and now Trauma Coach course creator), I work from the assumption of capacity. This assumption is what prompted me to create a course on trauma coaching. If we can start our coaching or therapy assessment from this perspective, the entire lens through which we view our clients will be different.
There is a lot of language out there about being "strengths-based" or "trauma-informed."
But, the very first question we ask is something along the lines of "what is wrong with you?" or "What is it that you can't do?"
Yes, we do need to ask these questions, but they should not exist in a vacuum and the inquiry should be in the context of all other dimensions of the person. People are filled with all kinds of gifts and skills and capacities.
We need to work harder to find those things with less emphasis on deficits.
In terms of trauma, it is really defined by a sense of helplessness. When we need to be able to do something during a moment of import and we can't, trauma symptoms are more likely to emerge later. If something bad happens and we can do something to protect ourselves or others, we are less likely to develop PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
As a trauma therapist or a trauma coach, every moment that we can notice, highlight, and capitalize on someone's abilities is also a moment that counters the original trauma experience.
Orenda coaches call this the "O-quo" or Orenda Quotient. Orenda is defined as a quality unique to everyone that allows them to exert agency over themselves or the world around them.
This term was coined by the Iroquois. I want to take this opportunity for a land acknowledgement in honor of Indigenous people, which you can find at the bottom of this article.
Approaching each relationship with the assumption of capacity allows opportunity to try, take healthy risks, and to learn.
I like to say, "do with, not for."
In working with those who have experienced trauma, some providers rescue, feel the need to blaze the trail for their clients, and expect that without them, their client would not be able to handle certain aspects of their lives.
Yes, sometimes people need extra support. Sometimes people are overwhelmed. Sometimes people are truly suffering and need a helping hand.
And, we should not assume this right out of the gate. The things we see first are the things we will continue to carry in the relationship. As a therapist or coach, it is uniquely important that we see the things in those we support that they may not see in themselves or that others might miss.
The hard part is that many of us are not even aware of what we expect or assume! The other hard part is that can be easier to do something for someone than to give them the time and space to do it on their own or to do it with support.
So, back to the beginning.
This article is in part as an ohmage to my long-time friend who passed away recently and whose birthday was last month. He was one of the people I had the privilege of working with during the early years of my career. He was a person whose body betrayed him from the get-go and whose capacity for trivia and knowledge about anything and everything surpassed your typical encyclopedia (especially regarding sports).
He shared his brilliance, his strength, his hilarious neuroticism (I say this with love-and he knows what I mean), with so many funny stories and experiences, and with the life-long inspiration he provided. Here's to you, Scottie.
In honor of Scott, I thought I would like share a "Yes you can" formula for those in the helping profession, or those who just want to do better. The photo in this blog post is of Scottie and I about 4 years ago. I was not able to see him during COVID and he passed away shortly after.
- Do with, not for. This means you can support someone in a challenging situation, but allow them to maximize their potential before stepping in.
- It can be faster to do something yourself then allowing someone to struggle and try. It is also easier to do it for someone than it is to explore the struggle itself.
- Give others the opportunity to struggle and succeed. Confidence comes from doing difficult things.
- Assume strength and capacity. Find goodness. Look for the O-quo (in yourselves and others).
Provide support without taking over.
Yes, you can.
I want to take this moment to acknowledge the Iroquois and other Indigenous groups as being traditional stewards of United States territories. I come with respect and honor of the land and the people and recognize that our Native American communities have experienced generations of trauma that remain impactful today.
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