Communication is absolutely fundamental to social work practice. As well as communication taking place between individuals it also takes place within specific contexts. This is about environment but also the contextual framework in which the communication act takes place. Let’s have a look at a range of contextual factors
The Physical Context
This is firstly about the local environment in which the communication act is taking place. So , as social workers this may be in a range of settings. Primarily the majority of face to face communication is going to take place in people’s homes or in an office environment. The advantage of a person’s home is clearly that they are more likely to feel comfortable to an extent. It is their usual environment. Your presence is going to change the impact of that depending on how they perceive you. For example, do they perceive you as a threat to their autonomy, or do they perceive you as an ally. How you approach the initial stages of your dialogue will have an influence here (more on that in a later blog). The physical context can come with some obstacles. The environment may be noisy, other people may be close by which may not help in having personal conversation, it may be very warm or cold. All of these things will have an impact. Try to minimise noise. Ask politely for the television or the radio to be turned off. Suggest moving to the kitchen or returning at a different time for example. From time to time if service users were attending other locations, for example, a day centre, I would suggest meeting them there rather than at home. This may not be as comfortable for the individual in terms of it not being ‘their space’ but may have the benefit of being able to secure a private space for open conversation.
There are other sorts of ‘noise’ that may encroach on the physical context. The person may be unwell, or may have just taken medication that makes them drowsy. The may therefore not be as engaged. People may be hearing and responding to voices which will impact in their focus. The ‘noise’ that comes with the power they may perceive you as having may mean they don’t readily open up to you and only reveal limited information. (I intend to expand on this in a later blog).
Office visits, for me, should be avoided whenever possible. Obviously where risk to your personal safety is an issue then having a service user visit you where personal risk is managed is essential. But where there are safe alternatives office visits, I find, are often not productive. The power balance is shifted very much to you and the organisation and, I feel, people are less likely to relax and engage fully. There is also a lot to be said for seeing people in their own environment. Doing this will give you valuable information and you can use cues around the person to stimulate conversation. Asking about people in photographs was always a great opportunity for me, when working with older people, to find out more about their history and their family.
The Cultural Context
Cultural perceptions of power, position and authority also have an impact on how you communicate with people. I don’t know about you, but I communicate very differently when out for a drink with friends compared to when I’m work. We communicate differently in different settings based on what is expected of us culturally. For example, think of the hushed tones we often find ourselves speaking in when in a church, or the boisterous language used when in the pub. There is a language with goes with different cultural environments. There are colloquial turns of phrase that need to be understood and interpreted, and maybe unpicked, to make sure of understanding. If you are communicating with people in different locations they may expect different things from you or perceive you differently. In a care home, for example, someone may feel they have limited choice as to whether they speak to you or not so may readily agree when really they may not want to, while in their own home, they may well ask you to ‘come back later’. People may feel less empowered to make their own decisions when in the cultural context of the care home where they may feel their personal autonomy is eroded.
The Social-psychological Context
As I’ve already alluded there is a social and psychological status to us as individuals. As a social worker you have a real, and also a perceived, position in society and therefore in the minds of the people you may want to communicate with. Some of this may come with negative perceptions of you based on your position. We assume different roles with different gravity as practitioners. That of social worker, Best Interest Assessor (BIA), Approved Mental Health Practitioner (AMHP) to name a few. And all of them come with different levels of power. BIA’s and AMHP’s have considerable power while social workers may actually be perceived as having more power than they actually have. This can create a barrier if not managed effectively. So, the words you use to introduce yourself, and the manner in which you do so, may help to overcome some of this. Those initial few minutes (some would argue seconds!) are crucial in establishing a level of rapport.
The Temporal Context
This is the communication event’s position within a sequence of other events. “It’s not all about you”, as people are fond of telling me! The conversation you are about to have has been preceded by events for you and will be followed by events for you that you are already aware of. Don’t forget this is the same for the person you are talking to. They may have just had a great morning and be on top of the world or they may have had an anxious few hours waiting for your visit. They may have just received good or bad news, or just had a lovely, or fractious, visit from a family member. You will probably have no knowledge of this so how you initially approach your conversation should bear this in mind and should aim to establish emotionally and psychological how the person is and therefore how you may need to tailor the conversation to their requirements. Also, they will have things happening after your conversation, as will you. This may lead to someone wanting to prolong the conversation or cut it short and both of these things can have a direct impact on the quality of the interaction. No doubt you will have prepared for the conversation but will the other person? You will find you therefore can’t simply launch into your agenda at your pace but will have to effectively judge how to approach the other person.
So, be conscious of how you can best ‘shape’ the physical environment, be aware of any cultural norms that may be having an impact, and be mindful of the place the conversation is within yours, and the person’s, day.
‘Noise’ and its impact on communication
The importance of conversational ‘openers’