Using Permission Seeking to Build Trusting Relationships

Published On: 17 April 2023

As professionals, the thought of taking a step back and allowing the course of events to be in the hands of an individual we support can be a daunting prospect. Sometimes, without even realising, we choose to be the authority figure to make us to feel safe and less vulnerable to situations developing off course.

By taking full control of all situations, we’re removing responsibility and ownership away from the individual, leaving us alone to steer what will happen next. This approach can be demoralising and can lead to feelings of helplessness. It can trigger low self-esteem; making the individual feel like their voice isn’t valued and they’re unimportant. This can put an immense strain on our relationship.

When we seek the permission from the individuals we work with, we’re letting them take the lead. They have the opportunity to say no; they can steer what will happen next. It’s an opportunity for us to show them that they can influence events and make their own choices.

Respectful relations:

The relationships with those in our care can sometimes be difficult to build and manage. Whilst we’re not there to be the individual’s best friend, we’re also not there to stamp authority and control over a situation. To achieve a successful balance, there needs to be a level of trust and respect that is mutual.

Consider these examples of opportunities to show mutual respect:

  1. Movement: If we’d like a child, young person, or adult to move to a particular place, we can’t assume that a physical hand on their elbow to steer them is acceptable. We need to be respectful of personal space and ask for permission to touch. A nonphysical hand gesture can often guide the individual just as effectively.
  2. Communication: It’s sometimes hard to not get impatient when somebody is desperately trying to tell us something at an inappropriate time. We can deflect the conversation by letting the individual know when’s it’s a more appropriate time to continue. By giving an exact time and place, we’re letting them know we want to listen and that their voice is important.
  3. Modeling expectations: Simple acts, such as using a please and thank you, opening a door for somebody, or asking whether they had a pleasant lunch can speak volumes. We can lead by example, helping the individuals we support recognise when they’re treated respectfully and feel valued.
  4. Facilitate daily talk: Everyone needs to feel like they have a voice and that we genuinely want to hear it. Positive relationships develop when we invest the time to talk and listen. This doesn’t need to be a timetabled event, but a quick check in and catch up with one another. These moments are key to showing that we care for the individual and that their voice is important to us.

When this level of mutual respect is embedded, the individual is more likely to trust that in challenging situations, we’re there to act in their best interests.

Asking permission

When we’re busy doing our jobs, it can be easy to start doing things automatically without taking the time to ask permission. We might put a seatbelt on someone, take something away from them, move them or attend to personal care needs without stopping to ask if it’s okay to do that. For some individuals, this can feel frustrating and disempowering, others become compliant and stop thinking about their own choices.

Instead, we can build permission seeking into our usual practice to allow the individuals we support to have their own voice and opinions and control over what happens to them wherever possible. There will be times when we do have to respond without permission, but we can still do this in a respectful way that informs the individual about what is happening and why it has to happen.

Offering choices

The problem with taking control and removing ownership from the individual is that they often learn nothing from it. They need to see cause and effect, get things wrong and learn from it, and understand that with our support, they can be in control. We can educate and upskill those in our care by giving them choices and ownership of situations wherever possible.

Everybody likes to have choices. They help us feel in control and responsible for our own actions. Without choices, we can feel trapped and uncertain of what’s going to happen next. Working in education and health and social care settings, it is all too easy to bombard those in our care with endless instructions and demands. In the short term, removing their choices can superficially help us feel in control, however, in fact, it is more likely to drive the behaviours we are trying to avoid. It is important to acknowledge that our role is not to control those in our care but to support and empower them to go on and make informed, positive choices.   

We can start by offering the individual choices when they are calm and settled. We can keep it simple by just offering two choices. Too much choice can become confusing and hard to process. We can’t present a choice that we are reluctant to follow through with; we need to be fully on board and accepting of either option. 

By relinquishing some control and presenting choices, we’re giving the individual permission to choose the direction of events. It empowers them, making them increasingly confident to take ownership of their life.

Final thoughts

Nobody likes the feeling of the unknown. That’s exactly what it can feel like when we seek the permission of those we support. We have transferred the decisions to the individual and we’re sometimes unsure of what that will look like; it can feel unconformable. However, when relationships of trust are built on mutual respect, and we provide the necessary supports, we can empower them, and let them take the lead in their own lives.