Giving and receiving support

The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), August 1997, pp. 8-9.

Brian Martin

Providing support for individual whistleblowers is one of the main aims of Whistleblowers Australia. Indeed, unless we provide such support then all our other activities -- such as campaigning for whistleblower legislation, free speech for employees and organisational reform -- have little chance of success. That's because a large fraction of active members initially came along to get help with their own situation. Unless newcomers get some support, few of them are likely to stay around long enough to help others and to take up campaigns.

What does it mean to give support? It can be talking face-to-face or on the phone. It also includes providing useful contacts, writing letters or articles, attending meetings, making representations, sending out media releases, organising meetings and even holding rallies. But above all it means talking to the person, hearing their story and offering sympathy and advice.

WBA has minimal funding and relies entirely on volunteers. There is no one who is paid to help anyone else. This means that we can't promise to take up anyone's case in the way that official bodies are supposed to (but too seldom do in practice). What we can do is help people to help themselves. This happens most commonly by sending information, by talking to people on the phone, and by getting together to share experiences such as at the NSW Branch's weekly "caring and sharing" meetings.

This sounds very good in theory and often it works in practice too. I've received many comments from people who have appreciated the help they obtained from leaflets, articles and The Whistle, from conversations on the phone and especially from meetings. Nevertheless, not everything is rosy. There are some common problems.

Many people who first come in contact with WBA are totally absorbed in their own situations. They call or attend meetings with the primary intention of getting help for themselves, not in helping anyone else. This is entirely understandable and normal. After all, contact with WBA may be the first time anyone who really understands what it's like is willing to listen.

There can be a problem, however, when self-absorption persists. When those who ring repeatedly for advice or attend numerous meetings continue to demand support without giving anything in return, this may become a trial for their helpers.

One of the deepest features of human psychology is a trait that can be called reciprocity. It means that if someone does something for you, you are likely to feel obliged to do something for them. Companies exploit this feeling when they supply "free" samples, knowing that most people will feel obliged to buy something. If you feel uncomfortable when an acquaintance buys you a meal, it's probably because you feel, perhaps unconsciously, that you now have an obligation to return a favour. Many people refuse favours because they don't want to feel obligated.

When a whistleblower is being helped by someone, all it may take to maintain the relationship is adequate recognition, such as an occasional "thank you." An enquiry about the helper's own situation is often welcome. At a meeting, it is polite to listen attentively to other people's stories if you expect others to listen to yours. It doesn't take all that much to satisfy the norm of reciprocity. Many members are pleased to be able to help, and all they may need is some little acknowledgment that their advice or willingness to listen has indeed been appreciated.

When providing support, it's best to do it voluntarily and not because of any sense of obligation. If you want to support someone, go ahead. If you don't want to support some particular person -- because you don't think much of their case, their politics or the colour of their hair -- then don't. There's no obligation. But also there's no need to leave them stranded or drum them out of the organisation. Someone else may be willing to help, and it's best to let others make their own decisions. If no one wants to help, then the person will look elsewhere soon enough.

When providing support, don't expect thanks (though it's nice to get it). In some cases, the recipient of your help may even criticise you for not doing more. That's painful. It's best to give support because you want to help and because you get satisfaction from doing it, rather than because of thanks or admiration you hope to get from the recipient or others.

As for those who demand more than you can or want to give, just tell them clearly what you are and are not willing to do. You're not obligated to do anything, after all. If you aren't clear about this, some people may take advantage of your generosity.

Placing limits on your role as helper is also important in order to be effective over the long term. Those who work professionally as helpers, such as psychologists or social workers, can become highly stressed. They need support themselves, often obtained from co-workers. Workers in rape crisis centres and others who counsel people undergoing trauma can burn out very quickly, because of the emotional drain of providing so much empathy. The same can apply to those who help whistleblowers. To avoid becoming jaded and resentful, it is wise to put limits on helping, however hurtful this may seem to some demanding whistleblowers.

One of WBA's long-term goals is to spread the skills of whistleblowing and struggling against corruption throughout the community, so that all the burden doesn't lie on a few individuals. That's why encouraging self-help and mutual help is so important. The more people who are able to help themselves and help others, the more time and energy is available to work on campaigns to change the social problems that make whistleblowing necessary.

I've been fortunate over the years to have known many people who were willing to help me when I needed it. In WBA itself, it is a continual honour to meet so many talented, passionate, principled and dedicated individuals, and to see the selflessness of those who have worked on the behalf of others, sometimes for years. Of course we have our differences and conflicts, and there is much that we can learn and do to improve. But let's also be proud of what we are and what we've achieved. And thank you all for your valuable support.


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