Communication skills are the bedrock of social work practice in all situations – when working with service users or their carers, presenting a case in court or at panel, or liaising with other professionals. How you engage, listen, and deliver your message is of huge importance. Words are powerful and body language is powerful. So how you use your communication can make or break a situation, can escalate or deescalate conflict, and can certainly change, for better or worse, the outcome of your involvement with individuals.
Carl Jung says that “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed”. In this quote we see the power of communication. How we communicate can be dependent on our personality, dependent on what we ‘bring to the table’ and how we use it. When two people meet something will inevitably occur and something or someone will change or be transformed. Even if you walk into a room and the other person there ignores you they have told you something in that action and that will impact on what you do next. What you do next will impact on their next response. In this situation the ignoring is a reaction in itself. We can’t help but communicate!
William James offers us this, “A man (sic) has as many social selves as there are distinct groups of persons about whose opinion he cares. He generally shows a different side of himself to each of these different groups”. My first practice educator when I was training told me after my first observed practice, as social workers we are actors on the stage. He wasn’t suggesting that we fake anything but was alluding to the point that in trying to build a professional relationship quickly with someone we need to be who they need us to be. We need to find some common ground through our communication to start to build a relationship, engender trust, and demonstrate empathy. As a simple example, I would sense the broadness of my accent shift depending on the accent of the person I was with. I felt this was reflecting and responding to who they are and showing that we, inevitably, have some similarities. In a sense this was a subconscious reaction on my part bourn out of trying to establish a human, emotional connection.
There is more to communication in social work practice than simply having a conversation. I remember reading the phrase somewhere that it is a ‘conversation with a purpose’. So, what is that purpose?
Well, firstly we should endeavour to make it a positive experience. Now, I’m not dismissing the fact here that some of the messages social workers need to deliver are difficult messages and some of those messages may not want to be heard by the people we are working with but still, we should approach all conversation looking for positive outcomes. We should demonstrate compassion for the situations people find themselves in and not appear punitive in our actions. Our role is to minimise, as far as is possible, the potential for conflict and hostility that may result from what needs to be said. Aside from difficult conversations we should use our ‘human touch’ skills to make people feel at ease, as far as you ever can, especially in the early stages of relationship building.
So, an important part of our communication is therefore to relate to the other person. To form and establish relationships where we can work with and, where appropriate, on behalf of, the individual. We should listen more than we speak. We should be aware of body language and what someone is communicating through that. The ‘music behind the words’ as Lishman would put it.
We also may find we need to use communication to influence, to put other options and to consider strategies for change. We may want to strengthen certain attitudes while asking people to consider the impact of others. At times we may need to challenge, sensitively, and in a spirit of cooperation. When challenging we need to ensure that we are not trying to move someone to change or think differently from our own personal value base but rather that we are working with an understanding of theirs. What do they value? What is important to them? What do they feel they need to change?
We must not fall in the trap of thinking that we only communicate to acquire knowledge of the person. We communicate to build a relationship, to create trust, and to demonstrate empathy. Get it wrong and these things aren’t achieved. Get it right and we can create movement and develop understanding.
The other facet to communication is that we learn about ourselves. We learn about what makes us ‘tick’, what challenges us, what makes us uncomfortable. We need to listen to ourselves while we are communicating, creating a feedback loop, reflecting in action, and modifying our style as we go to enable us to work effectively with the individual we are with.