An expert who assumes they are there to learn 

We know that to do a good job, we need to be trained, or even formed for the work. Formation is an idea that may not be familiar to everyone. If something is being formed, it is being shaped. If a person is being formed for a particular role, we, too are shaped such that our daily decisions and actions are in keeping with our role, eventually without having to really think about it. To simplify the idea for moment, think about learning to drive a car or ride a bike. At first, there is a lot to remember. Over time, your body and mind work in perfect sync so you can drive or ride without really thinking about it, unless something happens to disrupt your usual patterns.

Formation works in a similar way, although you can well imagine that maintaining our formation for human to human work requires more discipline and practice than remembering how to drive or ride. Regardless of our role, to excel, to get the best outcomes and to enjoy what we do, we put a lot in to being our best selves in whatever the role requires of us. Usually this involves a combination of technical and personal development, that for many of us includes a spiritual life. Over time we develop expertise. And this is entirely appropriate.

If we are claiming to be of any kind of use to the people we seek to serve, we need to bring our best selves, including our expertise, to the person and their situation. Our expertise should be appropriate for whatever their need is.

Add spiritual care in to the mix, in its wide range of expressions and forms, and we come to a paradox: an expert who is there to learn. One of the risks of any kind of expertise is that we can become so involved in what we know that we lose sight of what we don’t know. Building expertise can also mean we build up a set image of ourselves, and develop well-worn routines and patterns, to the point that there is no room left for any other way of seeing or doing. It can also mean that there is no room for the person we are seeking to serve. Whatever it is we have learnt, it is impossible for us to ever 100% know another person.

So, the invitation in spiritual care is to bring your expertise and at the same time assume that you are there to learn. Each time you interact with an older person, each time you make decisions that will affect an older person and their loved ones, ask yourself: What am I learning from this person/situation? (The answer may be something connected to the person’s story, or how to be patient, kind, respectful, or something else).

What am I hearing? What is important here? How do I know I am making a positive difference to this person/situation?

This is called a learning stance*. It means a total attitude shift from “I know” to “I am listening” as you approach each situation. A bonus is that it means you don’t have to have all the answers, every time. After all, it is quite stressful to be perfect. Being there to learn means you are more likely to develop a partnership with the older person and their networks, with each person playing their part. The invitation is clear: bring your expertise, and expect to learn.

*see for example the impact of introducing a learning stance into supervision of medical students in Canada. Giroux M, Saucier D, Cameron C, Rheault C. Adopting a learning stance: An essential tool for competency development. Canadian Family Physician. 2016;62(1):e48-e51.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn

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