1 Social Work Theory & Practice. The Importance of Communication Skills in Social Work Practice. Introduction. Social work is a professional activity. Implicit in its practice are ethical principles, which prescribe the professional responsibility of the social worker. The primary objective of the code of ethics is to make implicit principles explicit for the protection of clients. (BASW, 1976). According to Thompson (2000) Social work involves working with some of the most disadvantaged sections of the community and with people who, for a variety of reasons, are experiencing major problems and distress, often with unmet needs and other difficulties that may at times seem intractable.

Lishman (1994) purports a broader definition of Social Work, which involves entering into the lives of people who are in distress, conflict or 2 trouble. To do this requires not only technical competence but also qualities of integrity, genuineness and self-awareness.

The Central Council for Education and Training in Social work (United Kingdom) has also set out core skills and characteristics for Social work outlined as follows; The importance of being able to communicate and engage, To be able to promote and enable, To achieve success in planning and accessing information, Intervening appropriately and providing services when necessary, Working competently with other organisations, Developing overall professional competence.

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So not only do social works need to adhere to ethics and values, they must also look inside themselves as people and seek out the skills necessary to work with various client groups and organisations. As mentioned, communication skills are vitally important, along with listening and analytical skills.

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But it is also very important that the social worker be aware of him/herself, of 3 handing feelings or emotions that may arise through this line of work. Reflection is an important aspect, as well as creativity, sensitivity and humility. A major step forward in contemporary practice was the development of a Code of Ethics (1995), which further defined social work as: „ The primary focus of social work is working with individuals, families, and groups within their social context. Through the training, knowledge and skills which support a high standard of professionalism, the social work task is to facilitate and enable clients to identify options and make decisions for themselves so that they may develop strategies to effect improvement in the quality of their lives.

Social work also focuses on issues of social policy, social administration and social justice and the betterment of society as a whole‟ (IASW, 1995: 1). Effective social work requires a multitude of interconnecting knowledge and skills backed up by the values, which underpin 4 good social work practice. To be able to provide a good service the social worker needs to be able to refer to, or call upon a wide body of knowledge. This knowledge base is quite extensive and detailed, as Thompson (2000,p73) points out, “practitioners are not realistically expected to know all of this knowledge base.” However a certain level of knowledge is essential, for example knowledge of the basics, things such as relevant legislation, theories and techniques involved in a particular case.

Knowledge of society and the social processes and institutions is also crucial to the role of a social worker, as these are the very fabric of the profession. No amount of knowledge, on its own, at least, can be effective without the possession of skills to act upon it. Thompson (2000,p82) defines a skill as “the ability to carry out a particular activity effectively and consistently over a period of time.” The skills with which a social worker is armed must be used in conjunction with the knowledge base to reflect the values, principles, and beliefs associated with the profession. There is a wide range of skills involved in high quality social work from basic communication skills to analytical, presentational, and management skills.

Because of the often-sensitive nature of 5 situations social workers can find themselves in, the ability to be patient and understanding is important. Working with children and families is one of the largest areas covered by social work. Insofar as a social worker may be dealing with an individual client, that client’s place in the family can be of critical importance to any assessment. When working with families it is important not to try to mirror one’s ideas of how a family functions. The challenge for the social worker when working with a family is not to generalise but to try to understand “how does this family work?” Coulshed et al (1998,p171).

When dealing with a family it is very important to remain impartial, to take the time to listen to everyone’s point of view. This approach is more likely to “encourage discussion and sharing in which the worker is free to engage and disengage when the need arises,” Coulshed et al (1998,p175). Another area which social workers are involved is with groups. This is somewhat different to the family situation. It also shares things in common with community work. The role of a social worker as a facilitator or leader of a group has many levels. At different stages the worker has to be “central, pivotal, peripheral, 6 and central once again,” Coulshed et al (1998,p198).

The various stages of group development and the content of the stages outlined by Tuchman and Jensen, in Coulshed et al (1998,p198) names these stages as “forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning.” The role and tasks of the social worker are to help get group members involved and to encourage the development of a group bond. In the process of doing this s/he must be alert to isolated members, dominant members and conflict within the group, to develop positively the dynamics of the group and achieve a desired outcome, while meeting the needs of all the group members impartially and without bias. Community social work requires the social worker to develop a more flexible approach requiring such skills as recognising and validating skills and interventions.

Traditional social work skills may need to be adapted to fit into the community context. Network building can also be a part of the process for a social worker, for example, to bring a group of people together who have similar concerns but are not in a position to facilitate this formation themselves. 7 In each of the above scenarios, the social worker must adapt to the different settings and the number of individuals that may be present and therefore use the most effective form of communication and tools necessary to communicate at different levels, whether that involves one person, several people or a large group. Effective Communication. Effective communication is an essential component of traditional social work activities e.g. providing basic care, giving advice, making assessments, counselling, writing reports and acting as client’s advocates.

It is equally necessary for social workers to have effective communication skills if they are to promote self-help and empowerment. Verbal communication is what we say and includes questioning, reflection, focusing, summarising, challenging and confrontation. Verbal communication involves the use of language. The skills involved in engaging, listening, negotiating and challenging are equally relevant to communication in work groups and multi-disciplinary teams. Any commitment to the empowerment of social work clients is meaningless if their 8 views are neither sought nor taken into account. Silverman (1969) emphasises the importance of a non-judgemental approach.

There are three main areas of knowledge and experience were valued by clients are outlined by Rees and Wallace (1982), cited in Lishman (1994) Client’s valued workers who had enough experience of life to listen non-judgementally to what they had to say, Client’s valued workers who had enough life experience to understand client’s problems from their own experience, Clients appreciated specialised knowledge and training.

Kinds of Communication. Symbolic communication. Symbolic communication involves behaviour, actions or communications, which represent or denote something else. As social workers we need to be aware of the potential meaning of 9 our representation, actions and aspects of our working environment. For example, punctuality, dress and layout of the consultation room are all important aspects of symbolic communication. Proximity needs to be considered in relation to orientation. Sommer and Cook (1968) explored different seating positions and found evidence which suggested that sitting alongside a person implies cooperation, opposite a person competition and at right angles to each other equality of status. Thus sitting behind a des, directly opposite a client, has distancing and power implications but also may be confrontational.

Although, There are no fixed rules about posture; being too relaxed may convey power and inattentiveness, being too rigid, tension, anxiety and authority. As social workers we need to be aware of such subliminal reinforcement and to use it discriminatingly. Non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication outlined by Sutton (1979) suggests that while spoken communication is concerned mainly with 10 information giving, non-verbal communication is the ‘music behind the words’ conveying feelings or attitudes. Understanding people or social perception is concerned with the way in which people form impressions of others and make inferences about the causes of their behaviour to enable them to predict and control their own social reality, understanding the causes and motives behind behaviour is Nonverbal Communication or NVB. Nonverbal communication NVB is the way in which people communicate intentionally or unintentionally without the use of words.

Expressions, gestures, posture, touch, personal space, eye contact and tone of voice are used to express emotions, convey attitudes, regulate and control speech and communicate personal characteristics. NVB are examined in two ways: Information processing – how do people interpret nonverbal cues? What kinds of inferences do we make about people’s intentions based on these cues, Impression management. Michael Argyle (1988) suggested that NVB is important for: Expressing emotion, Conveying attitudes, 11 Communicating one’s personality traits, Facilitating verbal communications. Patterson (1983) suggests that NVB serve a number of particular functions in social interactions including: Expressing intimacy, Regulating the course of interactions, Exercising social control and dominance.

Druckman (1982) outlined five principal uses to which NVB is usually put: To communicate pre-articulated feelings, feelings that cannot be put into words, To provide cues to information processing enabling us to guess at what another person is thinking or feeling, To serve as emphases in persuasive appeals to enhance our success at persuading others, To facilitate deception, To convey subtle messages. 12 The characteristics of NVB were outlined by Dittman (1984). There are users and sources of NVB, nonverbal behaviours are sent by encoders and received by decoders through a variety of different channels. Channels of nonverbal communication include facial expression, eye contact, gestures, touch, paralanguage or nonverbal elements of speech and spatial behaviour.

A number of channels are used simultaneously to send a particular emotional message. Behaviours sent are intentionally controlled while behaviours may be received with different levels of awareness. Some messages are received in full awareness and as intended by the sender, whereas other messages are deliberately kept out of full awareness and may distort the intention of the sender. A number of different categories of NVB exist according to Ekman and Friesen (1969): - Emblems – these are movements that are communicative substitutes for words i.e. Handshaking. - Illustrators – these are movements that accompany speech and accent i.e. rapping a table. - Regulators – these are movements that maintain or signal a change in the speaker/ listener roles i.e.

Head nods. 13 - Affect displays – these are facial expressions that are used to convey emotions - Adapters – these are self and object manipulations, which relate to an individual emotional, need or state. Mehrabian (1972) suggested that NVB’s were important for indicating a person’s social orientation. Social orientation can be summarised in terms of dimensions; each dimension reveals some aspect of a person’s intention and motivation for interacting. According to Cook (1968) NVB are used to gain fuller descriptions of individuals when little information is available which we use to fill in the missing information about people, and guide our behaviour while interacting. One further way of determining what people think and feel is to try to provide explanations for why they behave in particular ways to reveal the motives and intentions behind their actions.

This process is referred to as ‘Casual Attribution’ and is concerned with understanding the reasons behind the behaviour of others. NVB are intended to provide us with clues to how a person feels, enabling us to predict and control our interactions with them. When information is missing implicit personality theories are used to fill in the gaps in our knowledge about a person. 14 Verbal communication. Language consists of symbols that convey meaning, rules for combining those symbols that can be used to generate an infinite variety of messages. People use spoken sound and written words to represent objects, actions, events and ideas, and can be combined in an infinite variety of ways to generate an endless array of novel messages.

Written reports and records. According to Lishman (1994) skilled are learned in action, with practise and feedback, written reports and concise record keeping enable the aforementioned to happen. Hargie (1986) acknowledges criticism that social work records and reports are often ‘lengthy, rambling and anecdotal’ and suggests ‘written reports should be clear, concise and concentrate’ on the important features of the case. O’Hagan (1986) calls recording ‘a crucial learning tool’. He argues that after a crisis, detailed scrutiny is 15 essential. Such recoding facilitates learning and self-awareness by a review of the behaviour, feelings, and interactions of all participants including the worker.

Doel and Lawson (1986) found that once workers had developed ‘an interactive recording style, using interview time to record the work, the quantity of written material was reduced because it becomes more focused. The South Eastern Health Board (1988) suggest that record keeping and good recording techniques are of vital importance in maintaining good housekeeping practice, facilitating accountability and maintaining the utmost confidentiality. Under the Freedom of Information Act 1997 asserts that the client can request to access to view/ copy their records at a later date. Therefore it is vitally important that all written records be update and regularly reviewed. However there are exemptions to the above, which are also included in the FOI Act provisions.

According to the United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health visiting (1993) the purpose of written records is to: To provide an accurate, current, comprehensive and concise information on the client from the initial assessment onwards, 16 including a record of any factors (physical, psychological or social) that appear to affect the client, To facilitate continuity, To provide a record of any problems that may arise and the response taken, To provide evidence of continuing assessments, To record the chronology of events and the reasons for any decisions may, To provide a baseline record against which improvement can be judged, To improve communication between all members of the healthcare team. Lishman (1994) suggests that statements made by the client during interview and subsequent assessments should include the client’s statements.

There is also a legal obligation by social workers to maintain written records, the onus being on good practice by practitioners. The role of communication. 17 Communication is a crucial aspect of organising; each and every interaction between the people who constitute the organisation is communication. Communication will be more likely to be good if it has been worked at constantly and not only in emergencies. McKenna (1991) suggests that communication is not simply a matter of sending messages to and from between individuals and groups. It involves being aware of and understanding the experience of other people.

This means knowing about the work they do and their perception of their situation. According to McKenna (1991) good horizontal communication between managers and vertical communication between managers and their work force are essential if role and job conflicts is to be avoided. It therefore appears that while managers at top and line management levels sees themselves as doing a good job in communicating with their immediate subordinates, those subordinates do not feel this is the case. Effective communication must be two-way. It must run from top to bottom and bottom to top – vertical communication, and it must flow to and from between people at the same level within the organisation – horizontal communication.

The so-called ordinary members control much of what happens to horizontal 18 communication. This is communication between people on the same hierarchical level in an organisation and involves communication between colleague such has team leaders, or team members. Dutfield and Eling (1990) note that effective communication between people involves skills in: Eliciting information, Presenting information, Managing the emotional content of the encounters. Skills in eliciting information: Questions are the most obvious way of eliciting information in any situation but they may be formulated in a number of ways: Open questions – give the other person an opportunity to put forward their point of view without constraints, Closed questions are more focused and usually allow a simple yes or no type answers, Specific questions – focus on facts.

The second step in effective presentation of information involves checking that the information has been received and understood, 19 an opportunity is given to ask questions, having a discussion, feedback and asking questions. Dutfield and Eling suggest that managing the emotional reactions of people in formal or informal interviews and at meetings. Emotions enter in when the person gets personally involved. This means that the core part of our self-concept appears to be under attack. We react defensively. Emotional reactions are themselves information and as such they take up part of our information processing capacity. For these reasons the skilful handling of the emotional content of communication is important in order to ensure that conflict and ill will does not result through misunderstandings.

The main skills in managing the emotional content of face-to-face meetings are; Preparing well in advance for interviews, Being aware of one’s opinions and prejudices, Clarifying the nature of the problem in behavioural terms – this involves separating fact from opinion, Setting up a suitable place and sufficient time for the interview, 20 Using skills in eliciting information to get the other person’s views, Acknowledge the other person’s emotional investment in the situation, Stay task focused, Decide a plan of action for the future with the person once the emotional content has been dealt with, Follow up the meeting with a memo summarising the agreement reached, Arrange a follow up meeting to review the situation.

Managing negotiation by Rackham and Carlisle (1978): Because people perceive situations differently their realities differ, the need to negotiate is a constant part of social life. The approaches to negotiation are as follows: Distributive bargaining – a win/lose position. Underlying this approach is the idea that resources are finite and that each side tries to maximise the gains for itself leaving the other side to settle for less. Win/lose strategies may give short-term gains but are usually less effective in the long term; 21 parties involved in the negotiation are usually involved in a long-term relationship with each other. Integrative bargaining – win/win approaches aims to solve problems in such a way that both sides gain something that they want. Win/win approaches to negotiating are recommended when the parties concerned will have to live and work together over the long term.

Lose/lose bargaining - in this situation conflict between the parties is likely to be personalised, parties would rather paralyse or destroy the organisation rather than reach an agreement. Approaches to negotiation make the following assumptions about human psychology: People are rational decision-makers at all times, People have unlimited information processing capacity which allows them to take into account all possible alternatives and all possible outcomes, People possess and understand all relevant information. Thus it is an important part of the process of negotiating successfully to: 22 Supply all relevant information, Ensure that its implications are clear to all concerned, Give time for the information to be considered, Be open to a reconsideration of the information in the light of other points of view, Be willing to raise disagreements in a constructive and non-combatitive manner.

Rackham and Carlisle (1978) defined the skilled negotiator as a person who as the ability to achieve an outcome with which participants were satisfied. Skilled negotiators: Use their social networks to get their message through to the other side through different people, Repeat their main theme so that it becomes clear and people can consider its implications, Label their actions themselves so that they cannot be mislabelled by others, Test their understanding of what others are saying to them by summarizing and restating the content back to the other side, 23 Show that they are attending and listening to the other side by asking questions about their proposals, Do not disagree outright but probe the implications, Avoid making a proposal at a time when it will be rejected, When a proposal is on the table from the other side, it should be examined and allowed to wind down before an alternative is put forward, Know that a counter proposal has the best chance of being accepted as a way out of a problem acknowledged by both sides, Don’t waste time, Never personalize difficulties in the process, Are not afraid to disagree, but avoid provocation when doing so. Building and maintaining client-worker relationship.

In order for it to be possible to engage with a client, the worker needs to show warmth, empathy, active listening and a non- 24 judgemental approach. Lishman (1994) outlines other core conditions or characteristics found necessary to build and maintain a client-worker relationship. Genuineness is one of the core conditions or characteristics found to be necessary for a counsellor or therapist to help clients effectively – Truax and Carkhuff (1957). They define genuineness as involving the worker in ‘direct personal encounter with the client, meeting him/ her on a person-to –person basis. Warmth/ non-possessive warmth also termed unconditional positive regard is another attribute found by Rogers and the client-centred school 1957 to be a core condition for helping.

Warmth is linked with acceptance and conveys respect. It involves the worker accepting the clients experience as part of that person, and can be thought of as a physical way of showing caring and understanding, and is mainly expressed non-verbally. Mehrabian (1972) uses the term to describe a group on non-verbal behaviours conveying, warmth, affiliation and liking. Mehrabian includes physical proximity, leaning and turning towards the client, sitting in a relaxed position, maintaining eye contact and smiling. 25 Acceptance and a non-judgemental approach. Lishman (1994) sees acceptance as a preparedness to try to understand a client’s subjective world, without conveying rejection or disapproval. Encouragement and approval – in the social learning theory terms, conveying approval is giving positive reinforcement, defined by Sutton (1979) as encouraging the repetition of good behaviour.

Positive reinforcements include tangible rewards, such as thanks, praise or appreciation. At the same time traditional social work values proposed by Biestek (1965) of acceptance and non-judgemental attitudes, have been interpreted to mean not only that workers should refrain from conveying their disapproval to clients, but also their approval. Empathy – is another core condition or characteristic found to be necessary for a counsellor or therapist to help their clients effectively Truax and Carkhuff (1957). Empathic responses can help a client to make sense of what may feel a jumble of thoughts and feelings. The client may be reassured that there is some meaning in what as felt incoherent and irrational.

Empathic responses can help to validate and confirm client’s perceptions, which previously 26 have been ignored, disqualified or disconfirmed. While this cannot heal or solve the past hurt it may reduce its power in the present by helping the client to recognise the hurt and live with it, and perhaps ‘lay it to rest’ and move on. Responsiveness and sensitivity – according to Mehrabian (1972) responsiveness can be conveyed non-verbally and verbally. He found that it was communicated non-verbally by movement; head nods, leg and foot movements, by facial expressions; through pleasantness and changes in expression.

Conclusion. The final requirement according to Lishman (1994) for effective communication is the worker’s self-awareness. Communication, verbal, non-verbal or symbolic, is about our use of self. In order to communicate effectively we have to be aware of what we are doing, why we are doing it, how we are presenting ourselves to our clients and, on the basis of this self-knowledge or awareness, what changes in our communication are needed if we are to be more effective. Skilled and effective communication is not a static state. 27 It will always involve change and development and consolidation, learning from our past behaviour and from our mistakes. Writers such as Sheldon (1977) and Fischer (1978) argue that social workers should concern themselves with the evaluation of the effectiveness of their intervention.

They stress the importance of, thinking about the ends of work, not just the means of goals and outcomes; setting specific goals to avoid a double agenda, diffusion of goals, inactivity and lack of change, and failure to offer what the client wanted; developing and definiting intervention skills for problem-solving and change. The skills involved in attending and listening, engaging and relating, giving and getting information, negotiating agreements or contracts and helping people to make changes in their attitudes, beliefs or behaviour are relevant to social work in all contexts. Each context will influence the way in which communication occurs, both enhancing and encouraging the use of some skills and constraining or limiting the use of others.

Lishman (1994) also suggests that attending – being punctual is an indication to our clients of attentiveness. Listening and an 28 empathic response are important components in enabling the client to feel that such emotions can be accepted, expressed and lived with and do not have to be hidden or feared. Such acceptance may be the staring-point for a client to learn to live with and manage previously disabling emotions. Social workers have to begin from a value base, which entails basic respect for all human beings. Social work as to start from humanistic principles or values about the worth and dignity of each individual.


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‘The Priority of Client Evaluations’, in Lishman 1988. http://iasw.eire.org/ethics.htm http://www.arcaf.net/social_work_proceedings/ 33 Retrieved from "http://www.socialwork.ie/socialwork/wiki/index.php/Communication_in_Social_Work_Practice_-_Essay" Personal tools

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Communication in Social Work Practice essay
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