In the repertoire of social work skills I think there is nothing more crucial than negotiation. That might be negotiation with the service user themselves around what you can realistically do, or with a son who has different ideas to you or their parent about what is best, or also in your relationships with other professionals. How you negotiate can make or break a situation the same way as in the business world it can make or break a deal.
The business world seems to talk more about this as a skill so I’ve turned to them to figure out what it is we need to be good negotiators! So here’s a analysis from the business section of Houston Chronicle – let’s see what it tells us –and whether it fits with social work!
You must be able to analyse what’s going on in the environment and figure out the interests of each party. Sound familiar? Case conference? Meeting with a family? You need to know what each party is after from the negotiation around the problem because in doing so you can find the areas where some compromise might be possible
As ever, preparation is the key! Fail to prepare – prepare to fail! What are your goals? What can you compromise on? Where’s your flexibility? I know in saying this it seems, on the surface, to fly in the face of putting the service user and their goals at the heart of this, and in a sense I see that, but you need to know what your role is in a meeting and what you may be able to achieve. You can give the service user centre stage when you are in the meeting but having a sense of what your options are, based on the information you have, might help. I’m not suggesting you should have solved the problem and have a service in mind but, for example, you could read the case file to get an understanding of past history and the importance of certain relationships so you could introduce elements that might help into the conversation when required.
Here we are again back with our core communication skills! You need to listen to everything when negotiating – the words, the body language, what’s not being said – as all of it is telling you something. You need to get behind the words and find the meaning that is there. You can fall into the trap of putting forward your view too strongly before you’ve given the service user time to explore their own position. Sometimes as social workers we just need to be quiet.
I’m going to add in here as well being emotionally present. We often deal with very difficult circumstances as social workers and understanding your own emotions and triggers is essential. More on that here. But also, it’s difficult if overly emotional about something to end up controlling it to the extent that you appear distant. This is a difficult one and not easy to find a balance when in an emotionally charged situation. I see nothing wrong in responding to distress and upset with an emotionally driven human response. It’s ok to show your humanity. Other more destructive emotions like anger and obvious frustration are best avoided. This is not to say we can’t sometimes employ a firm tone to show our emotional position. It is, however, all about a controlled response.
It seems obvious to say, but is still worth saying, how you communicate verbally is crucial. It’s crucial when you look at the previous paragraph on emotions because the words you use sometimes can ‘give you away’. So you must be mindful of the language in which you present your ideas and thoughts. Who practices phrases in the car on the way to a meeting when they know they have something difficult to say? You should. How the words feel in your head and how they sound when you add in the tone and the delivery can sometimes be starkly different.
Collaboration and Teamwork
When you are working with a broader multi-disciplinary group or even with a family you need to see them for that moment in time as your team. You’re all working on the same problem and all trying to achieve an outcome to resolve the problem. You’ll not always all agree on how to solve it though! As well you know, I’m sure! But nevertheless you are a ‘team’ and must create a collaborative atmosphere and not one dominated by any power – real or otherwise. When a son or daughter feels permanent care is the best thing for their parent they will genuinely believe that. You can’t simply dismiss it but must work with that view. Turning around that view, if you need to, may require skill and negotiation.
As in the example above you will need to resolve the problem at hand but also where someone doesn’t agree with your resolution or the resolution the service user is proposing then that becomes a problem! So as you are resolving one problem you may well give yourself another to negotiate a way around. In negotiating you need to show how a particular outcome or resolution benefits all sides even where it is not their preferred option.
Decision Making Ability
Sometimes though a decision needs to be made and sometimes you will be the one who has to make it. You may have negotiated and negotiated and got nowhere with certain elements but then a decision needs to be made. Firstly, can you agree a compromise? Secondly, can you explain things to the person who doesn’t agree with the path proposed and help them understand if not necessarily agree? And Thirdly, do you just have to make the decision!? In making the decision you will need to know theory, policy and law. You will need to know what gives you the remit to say – right – this is how we are doing it. You might be saying – ok – we will do what your Mam wants here. And that may be born out of your understanding that she has capacity to make the decision. Or you may say – ok – we are doing this – because you know you have discharged your responsibility under the Best Interest Checklist in the Mental Capacity Act and need to undertake your role as decision maker.
Clearly to achieve this you will need good interpersonal skills! You will need to be able to foster and maintain good working relationships even where there is disagreement. ‘Taking your ball in’ is not an available option to the professional! You will need patience. You will need to be able to construct an argument that persuades but doesn’t manipulate. This is done by being transparent and by not withholding information to give you an advantage. All of this will create a positive working relationship.
Ethics and Reliability
And all of this relies on your ethics firstly. Who are you? What do you stand for? How does that drive what you want to achieve in a negotiation situation? And then, be reliable. Once the decision is made follow through, do what you said you were going to do in the time scale that was set. And when you can’t you need to have the professionalism to pick up the phone and explain why not.