For many years in these pages, I have extolled the virtues of active involvement in the political campaign of candidates sympathetic to psychology’s concerns. Make no mistake; I continue to fervently believe in the value of political giving for psychology. This column, however, is devoted to what I view as the 2nd best way for psychologists to win friends and influence public policy makers at all levels of government.
Imagine a group of ten legislators and assorted staffers actively participating in a “therapy” group being facilitated by a psychologist. Assemblyman X waxes prolifically about a certain constituent whose daily demands to duplicate the same document over and over are driving her staffers to the limits of their tolerance. State Senator Y expounds about a constituent who, after an acrimonious divorce, expects the Senator to redress what he considers to be the outrageous inequities of the judicial system. Congresswoman Z submits that the stresses of weekly transcontinental jet travel and the demands of the job are taking a toll on her ability to manage his frustration adequately.
Sounds like a scene from a Hollywood film with Mel Brooks in the leading role, right? Wrong. This was a real situation which took place in San Diego almost 15 years ago. I am hopeful that this same scenario can be replicated across the country in order to promote the work of professional psychologists in the eyes of lawmakers at the local, state and national levels.
The scene described above came about due to a combination of serendipity and the vision of the San Diego Psychological Association’s (SDPA) leadership. The concept for a legislative workshop began with a phone call to the SDPA office from a state legislator’s staffer who requested permission to attend a closed training session for psychologist evaluators providing services in San Diego County‘s Juvenile Court system. It would have been inappropriate for a lay person to have attended such an event. But, the Chair of the Juvenile Court Committee of SDPA wisely recognized that a rare opportunity had been presented, even though it wasn’t in the area of the original request. It was, however, a chance to further explore an area of great importance to psychology, namely the legislative advocacy arena.
I suppose it was because I was the most vocal and the most persistent promoter for psychology’s need to become more involved in the political process, that the phone call from the state senator’s staffer was referred to me. After careful consideration of all the variables (taking a total of about 3 minutes) it was clear that we had stumbled upon what could become a golden opportunity if handled well. What could be better for psychology’s political advocacy agenda than to have a legislator’s office register their desire to participate in a psychology workshop? The fact that the specific workshop in which they had expressed interest was inappropriate did not prevent us from pursuing another kind of working relationship with that office.
To that end, a meeting was arranged with two staffers from the Senator’s office. The overarching goal of that initial meeting was to engage in a formal needsassessment of the staffers. The needsassessment approach was easy to apply in this specific situation because we were responding to a direct request made by a legislator’s office. Therefore, it was quite natural to explore the range and kind of on-the-job problems they regularly encounter. Needless to say, as in any meeting where psychologists interact with legislators, the guiding principle for such a meeting should be to demonstrate, in vivo, that we psychologists are competent professionals and that the services we provide have real value. The three psychologists who participated in that first meeting displayed psychology’s wares very effectively. The meeting soon developed into a small group experience facilitated by three professionals who functioned to help each participant to identify specific problems, ventilate emotionally about them, and offered some assistance in formulating a plan to resolve the most minor ones. We provided the staffers with a sample of our work product and they provided us with the seeds with which to develop an ongoing consulting relationship.
Following that meeting, it was apparent that we had an opportunity to design and implement a program for legislators which had the potential for greatly enhancing psychology’s advocacy activities. Traditionally, our advocacy efforts have revolved around developing and then nurturing personal relationships with legislators at all levels of government. We meet with them on a regular basis, keep them apprised of psychology’s political agenda, and when needed, ask them to support our position on a particular piece of pending legislation. On occasion, we ask a special friend in the legislature to carry an amendment to a particular piece of legislation. And on even rarer occasions, we ask a very special friend to author a bill.
It is almost exclusively through political giving activities that psychology turns the tables and actually offers elected officials something rather than asking for something. We have a lot of room for improvement in this area. As noted above, the emphasis of almost all other interactions is on psychologists approaching legislators with their hands outstretched, asking for something of the legislator (a favorable vote, authorship of a bill, support of an amendment, etc.) What a major shift it is to be able to interact with a legislator as a psychologist and offer him or her something of value rather than being in the more customary role of asking them for their help on some matter.
Based on the needs-assessment we thought a reasonable and an appealing theme on which to focus would the commonly experienced problem area in many legislative offices, dealing with difficult constituents who were challenging for legislators and their staffs to manage on a day to day basis. The actual format for the first workshop with legislators was designed to be both didactic and therapeutic. We aimed for a two hour program consisting of 45 minutes of didactic presentation given by a senior, polished psychologist, followed by small groups facilitated by other psychologists who were hand picked for their skills in working with small groups.
Anxiety ran a bit high for that first program. What if we had a party and no one showed up? We ended up with around 20 attendees at the workshop entitled “Dealing With Difficult Constituents.” We attempted to ensure that the legislator turnout would be high by employing efficient marketing techniques. Feedback from all the participants was most positive. As is often the case with group experiences like this, the participants seemed to relish the opportunity to share the various and sundry problems they had recently encountered in the workplace. The program worked like a charm, and all participants seemed to be pleased with the outcome and a follow-up session was agreed upon.
It is important to recognize the double impact which such an experience generates. First, displaying the services psychologists typically provide to patients to such an influential group like legislators/staffers is invaluable in promoting the recognition that psychological interventions result in both tangible and intangible benefits for consumers of such services. Few things could be more powerful in shaping opinions about any topic than to have had a personal experience with a particular intervention, regardless of what field or what discipline. Yes, there are certainly other ways to influence our legislators about the field of psychology, and we are constantly engaging in those pursuits by way of meetings, phone calls, the provision of information and fact sheets, etc. Even so, these methods pale by comparison to the type of in vivo experience which is provided by the workshop setting, except in rare instances when a legislator has had a beneficial personal psychotherapy experience with a psychologist. Second, psychologists are in the business of forming close therapeutic alliances or relationships. There is only one more powerful way to initiate a trusting relationship with policy, decision, or law makers than to do so in the context of teaching them interpersonal skills while functioning in the role of helping professional. The most powerful way, of course, remains contributing liberally to a legislator’s campaign fund. This always opens the door for expanded relational opportunities.
This model for working with legislators is a “no-brainer” for psychology. It can easily be duplicated or modified for use in every region of the country by teams of psychologists like those in San Diego. Meetings can be scheduled to take place on either a quarterly or monthly basis. Topics can range from, “Dealing With the Difficult Constituent” to “Developing an Effective Staff” to “Avoiding Burnout In the Public Sector,” etc. The specific topics you choose are only important insofar as they may be the inducement with which to initially attract your participants to attend the first meeting. In reality, after attending a workshop, there should be little problem in developing repeat customers. I know this is true because staffers are starving for opportunities to share the trials and tribulations of their daily work experience which is quite stressful. When we offer them a legitimate forum for voicing their concerns and hearing how colleagues may struggle with the same or similar issues, we can only be doing them a real service and they are appreciative of this.
Borrowing liberally from one of this country’s most notable leaders “Ask not what your Congressman can do for you, but rather what you can do for your Congressman.” Forgive me JFK. Please let me know if you are currently utilizing a similar program in your area or if you would like more information about the model I have described. I can be reached at (800.735.7305) or E-mail at smpfeiffer@ aapnet.org.