Frontline Initiative

Building Supportive Relationships:
The Key to Quality Direct Service


Lori S. Schluttenhofer is a residential supervisor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Take some time to imagine a life in which the central figures in your daily life are there for the sole purpose of collecting a paycheck. People only talk to you about what you should or shouldn’t do. They decide when you wake, eat, bathe, and sleep. And it’s been a long time since anyone had an actual conversation that included your input – usually these conversations go on without you or as though you were invisible.

This is the life that many people with disabilities experience. Is it any surprise, then, that many of the people who receive supports lack the skills and knowledge necessary for interpersonal relationships? Is it any surprise that low self-esteem is so pervasive among consumers of support services?

Positive, growth-supportive relationships between direct support staff and the people who receive services are a necessity which has long been overlooked. In fact, it has repeatedly been stressed that we need to adhere to stringent “staff–client” boundaries, in which our roles as service providers are strictly maintained in an emotional vacuum. We’ve been taught to always remember that we’re “staff,” never friends. This perspective is now being replaced by a growing understanding of the multi-faceted nature of our roles and of the importance of relationships. We’re not only counselors, teachers, supervisors, or caregivers, but also learners, mentors, friends, and real people – real people who communicate, respect others, support joint growth, and commit themselves to these principles. Only by building and maintaining meaningful relationships with the people we support can we foster real, lasting growth for them as well as for ourselves.

Mutual respect and understanding are the building blocks for supportive relationships. This involves a resolution that all people, regardless of ability, are entitled to the same levels of self-expression, self-determination, and positive regard. This seems very simple in theory, but often becomes lost in practice. For instance, some direct support professionals develop a “split personality” – a distinct difference in voice tone, manner, and facial expression used when communicating with people with disabilities. The same lack of respect is communicated when staff talk about someone’s life without regard for their presence or input. 

In order to relate to each other, we must communicate, and to communicate we must first listen. We often spend so much of our “work” time talking and very little actually listening to the people we support. We get so lost in striving toward goals set by assessments and legal regulations that we don’t take enough time to try to hear and observe what people are really expressing. We need to take time to really get to know each person as a person rather than a case history or a diagnosis. When it comes time to talk, it’s important to avoid esteem-defeating, labeling language, and to rely on accurate, descriptive language.

 Perhaps the most important factor, though, is to simply be a real person and expect the same of others. A real person experiences a variety of emotions and possesses a variety of expectations regarding others, and a real person shares some of these with those to whom he chooses to relate.

Building a solid relationship requires a steadfast commitment to consistency of positive regard. In order to have a healthy sense of self-esteem, everyone must spent time with others who think of them positively, regardless of accomplishment or failure. We’ve all worked before with people whose “bad reputations” precede them and influence how others approach or interact with them. Balanced with communicating genuine feelings and reactions, at some point we need to be able to forgive people for past mistakes and allow for a new beginning. Few of us have the misfortune of being forever labeled with a permanent record of our past transgressions, and no one should be held to this standard because he or she receives supports.

 So, we need to balance many roles as we offer support to people with developmental disabilities. We serve as a mix of teacher and friend and rely on the relationships we build as a foundation for mutual growth and support. By listening and learning, by speaking well and with respect, and by being genuine, we can open doors to individual growth and accomplishment. And we can truly find a better reason to do what we do – because we grow from these relationships as well.