The dictionary definition of rapport is “a friendly, harmonious relationship. Especially: a relationship characterized by agreement, mutual understanding, or empathy that makes communication possible or easy.”
“Friendly” or “harmonious” are not typically words associated with the justice — or specifically the community supervision — system.
But they can be, and can result in a dramatic difference in outcomes.
- The importance of holding each participant accountable for their behavior;
- Providing social support without enabling;
- Identifying boundaries: I am not your friend, but I am not your enemy.
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Your upcoming webinar is about the importance of rapport in the supervision environment. Rapport, though, is important in most settings: a manager with his or her employees, a salesperson and his or her clients, customer service agents with callers…. Why is rapport in the probation/parole environment unique?
Paul Ventura: In Community Supervision, rapport building can be the one thing that assists a client/probationer in being successful and in building a successful officer-client relationship. Without rapport, we go back to the old days of checking off boxes of requirements. Completing the requirements set forth by the Court is still very important, but this is compliance verification rather than behavior change.
If our main focus is behavior change (and it should be) then we need to address our clientele’s thinking errors, how to assist them in making changes to their thinking and providing them access to resources that will assist them in this process. Rapport builds trust and, without trust, a high-risk client will not effectively make changes in their lives. Low-risk people will make changes without much intervention or officer supervision/interjection. Medium to high-risk offenders need more structure and someone there to hold them accountable. Holding someone accountable for negative behaviors and faulty thinking is much easier, in the long term, when there is an effective established rapport between clients and officers. This also allows us to cut down on technical violations/revocation and helps us to avoid the new crime violation/revocation.
Rapport building can be the one thing
that assists a client/probationer in being successful
and in building a successful officer-client relationship.
Michelle Hart: I agree, Paul. Rapport is probably the most important piece of supervision. I recall seeing an article or research that indicated that the rapport (relationship) between the client and the change agent is more important than the client’s readiness for change and the content of the program being delivered (such as MRT or EPICS II). In addition to trust, which Paul discusses, the clients need to believe that we care about their success and believe their ability for change and success.
Touching more on Paul’s discussion of accountability, rapport is doing so with a mutual understanding and respect. Our clients understand our role to hold them accountable, but if a rapport is successfully established, our clients will see the accountability as part of a process for change rather than purely punishment. Shame and punishment is something our clients are very familiar with and by establishing a positive relationship we are also role modeling healthy relationships with accountability.
Lastly, rapport increases safety, which is a unique necessity in our field as compared with traditional customer service as asked in the question. Because we are law enforcement and there will be times in which arrests, searches, and difficult conversations must occur, having and established rapport increases safety, especially with the client’s collateral contacts.
Shame and punishment is something our clients are very familiar with
and by establishing a positive relationship
we are also role modeling healthy relationships with accountability.
JCH: In your own experiences, observations or research, how has the acknowledgment of rapport changed over the years?
Paul: Since the introduction of Evidence-Based Practices in the field of community supervision, we have been able to see the benefits of rapport on the supervision process. Michelle (my co-presenter) has been in the field longer than me and has seen this evolution more than I have, but in the 13 years that I have been in probation, I have also experienced it and witnessed it. I was fortunate to have open-minded and forward thinking mentors in my early career. They impressed upon me the importance of mutual respect and rapport at an early stage in my career. However, I did witness many officers that were in the stage of compliance only supervision. They appeared more frustrated, more susceptible to burnout, to have a lack of interest in their profession and they did not have a lower recidivism rate than those participating in rapport building and EBP style of supervision.
I have been in the field (direct supervision of offenders) for my entire career. It would have been easy for me to feel the same frustrations and lack of enthusiasm that some of these officers have felt, but my engagement with the clientele and attempting to build a “relationship” with them, allows me to stay energetic and successful supervising high-risk people. Some people are afraid of the word relationship being used when discussing the supervising officer and offender, but I feel that it is a type of relationship. By discussing the roles of all involved in the offender’s supervision process at the first meeting, this empowers the officer to explain their authority without having to continually rehash it throughout their supervision.
It is frustrating to hear officers say “you know, I can put you in jail” to offenders who have a violation. If rapport is established, they already understand this, they feel a sense of disappointment because of their negative behavior and we can address it in a totally different way. Instead of re-enforcing your authority over someone, we can have a conversation of how this behavior will negatively affect them going forward if they do not make changes. We can discuss possible ways to make changes and put a plan together to achieve this. It does not mean that they will not be sanctioned for negative behaviors/violations, it means that we are not making that sanction the #1 focus of the interaction. This will help if the offender continues the behavior and we can take them back to that conversation.
Michelle: It makes me happy to hear that Paul has heard from the start of his career that building a rapport is important. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same. It has definitely evolved over the years. When I started out as a young, certainly wide-eyed and idealistic, probation officer, it made sense to me that we needed to build a relationship with our clients. How else would they know, better yet, believe that we were here to help? Senior officers often told me that I was too “naïve” or “optimistic” and definitely saw my age something I would have to overcome when dealing with older clients. I was told I needed to be firm and establish my authority so that I would not be “taken advantage of,” or “walked all over.”
As Paul said, with the advent of the implementation of Evidence-Based Practices, rapport has definitely become a topic of discussion and training. While there are still folks in this profession who lean more toward the law enforcement style of supervision, things have come a long way. This isn’t to say that the law enforcement style isn’t necessary, but a balance of that and social work has shown to be the most effective when it comes to successful outcomes for our clients. Too much social work style has also shown to be ineffective.
If our main focus is behavior change (and it should be)
then we need to address our clientele’s thinking errors,
how to assist them in making changes to their thinking
and providing them access to resources that will assist them in this process.
JCH: What are some of the most common mistakes you see probation and parole professionals making that affect their rapport with their clients? Any recommendations for improvements or changes?
Paul: We have a lot of new officers in our department at this time. We also have many officers with over 15 years experience. With both groups, I see the most glaring mistake being a waste of their initial meeting with their clients. We have a lot of paperwork to complete in our profession and, most departments, have a timeframe for when they want things to be completed. Because of this, officers feel pressure to complete as much as possible in their first interaction with a newly sentenced offender, rather than breaking up their meeting into two shorter meetings and/or focusing on beginning the rapport building process immediately.
Something that I do (and encourage all officers to do) is have two meetings with a new client within the first 7-10 days of sentencing. My first meeting is usually within 24 hours of their sentencing or release from incarceration. I use this time to discuss what the offender’s experience is with community supervision (if they do not have first-hand experience, maybe a family member had been on probation/parole). I speak with them about what they would like to accomplish, both personally and within the criminal justice system, while they are on probation. I inform them of our department’s goals and my personal goals for them. We review their conditions of supervision, including all of the requirements set by the Court. I discuss the roles of all the stakeholders involved: the offender, me, the Judge, counseling/treatment professionals, the community, their family, etc. We then discuss confidentiality. This provides them with some sense of assurance that everything they tell the supervising officer will not be public knowledge. This usually takes approximately 20 minutes. I will then provide the most necessary written directives/agreements so that they can leave feeling the meeting was positive.
When they return, I provide the rest of the written directives/agreements and we begin to formulate a plan of action on what to do next. Sometimes, I also do an assessment at this meeting. Both meetings take approximately 40 minutes combined. Most officers that I witness, take at least that much time in their first meeting with an offender, they do not focus on the rapport building, but rather the paperwork, and the offender leaves confused and/or unsure of how the supervision process will play out.
Clients are so overwhelmed,
and so are probation officers for that matter…
Michelle: I love your answer, Paul! It is spot on. Clients are so overwhelmed, and so are probation officers for that matter, and breaking it down to two appointments and truly using the time in a structured and focused way is more meaningful and beneficial to both the officer and the client.
The mistake I see most often, which I believe can contribute to burn out, is taking things personally. Often officers who become invested and build a good rapport take negative outcomes and/or behavior personally. This is especially true when a client lies to them. I always try to help officers remember, lying is a defense mechanism. No one wants to be or likes to be in trouble. Plus, this behavior has worked for them in the past. It won’t change overnight just because you have established a rapport with them. Building rapport does not mean that healthy boundaries or work/life balance does not occur. While we all have clients that may stand out or who have made a significant impression on us, it does not mean we should take things personally. We are change agents, hopefully guiding our clients on their journey, but we are not in control of their choices.
The mistake I see most often,
which I believe can contribute to burn out, is taking things personally.
JCH: You have been probation officers for quite some time, what is some of the best advice you have received over the years that others might benefit from?
Paul: There are two pieces of advice that I received over the years, that seem simple on the surface, but are difficult in practice and have helped me to become a good probation officer. The first bit of advice came very early on in my career when I would work endless hours to get things done and it affected me personally and professionally in a negative way (frustration and burnout). I had someone I really respected remind me that the work would still be there the next day and that it was just as important to leave and enjoy myself, as it was to be attentive to my work. They reminded me of time management to be the most effective while I was at work and then to leave my work at the office. This helped me to be more efficient, set a specific end time for my shift and stick to it and it helped me to avoid the frustrations that came with thinking I was not doing everything I should. For those familiar with the “Colors” personality assessment, I am a gold at work and an orange in my personal life. Because I was task and accomplishment driven, it caused me to realize that there was always more to do. Prioritizing your work is extremely helpful in allowing yourself off the hook to complete something the next day.
The second piece of advice was given to me by my father when I was younger and again when I started my career. He was a probation officer for almost 30 years. He expressed the importance of treating everyone with respect and understanding their backgrounds: where did they come from, their ethnic/cultural or belief system differences and possible obstacles that they have faced. This has allowed me to be understanding to each person that I supervise, no matter what the crime is that they committed. This advice was further reinforced by my mentor (and co-presenter), Michelle Hart. Working with her early on, she role modeled this behavior for me and impressed upon me the importance of keeping this with me, no matter the situation. I think this also helps in building rapport with our clientele.
Prioritizing your work is extremely helpful in allowing yourself off the hook
to complete something the next day.
Michelle: Excellent pieces of advice, Paul. You have really helped me to be more mindful in practicing what I preach specific to selfcare and having a professional and personal life balance. It is so important. Burnout and secondary trauma are realities in this profession. The work will be there when you return and there are truly no emergencies. Find outlets for stress and personal activities that are fulfilling.
Another piece of advice would offer is whenever possible, work with a partner. Even if you don’t have a caseload that offers a traditional partnership, such as a probation officer paired with a surveillance officer, find another officer in which you can establish an informal partnership. For field work, this significantly increases safety. Plenty of research and information out there on this topic. But additionally, having someone you work closely with can be beneficial in many ways. It is a person who will also get to know your caseload and assist in your absence. I don’t know how many times over the years I have heard officers say that it is more trouble than it is worth to go on vacation because of the catch up that needs to be done upon return.
Having an informal partnership can help alleviate the stress of being away, knowing that you have someone keeping any eye out in your absence and vice versa. If the partnership is one of trust and respect, you can bounce situations off each other and bring each other back into the realm of a healthy personal and professional balance to ward off burnout. It is also an opportunity to learn from each other, drawing on the strengths of each other. Having a professional partnership with Paul over the years, even now that we work in different counties, has definitely had an impact on my longevity and growth in my 24-year career. While he has said that I have been his mentor, I have certainly learned just as much from him.
Click Here to Watch “The Importance and Role of Rapport Building for Effective Supervision.”