Why Communication Skills?

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Social Work is fundamentally dependent on good communication. Social workers need to communicate effectively with service users and carers, other social workers, their managers, and other professionals. Each of these types of communication has its own challenges, often its own rules and language, and an inability to operate effectively in one or more of these areas has been at the root of many of the high-profile tragedies which have beset the history of social work.

Communication is, of necessity, a two-way process, involving a minimum of two people. A social worker needs, therefore, to be able to communicate clearly, but also to be able to enable others to communicate with her/himself. We need to have the skills

  • To support other people in overcoming any blocks they bring to communicating with us
  • To ensure that our own behaviour, words, or tone are not in themselves a block.

Communication is a whole-body activity. We communicate through words, but also, and in fact more so1, through tone, posture and gesture, behaviour, facial gestures, clothes and appearance. Silence and stillness are powerful forms of communication. Developing good communication skills depends on becoming aware of all of these aspects, in ourselves and in those with whom we communicate. Because we have been communicating all our lives, and for the most part without thinking about it, developing such awareness can at first feel awkward and inhibiting, but over time becomes integrated into our practice.

Communication is also deeply affected by our emotional state, and social work is an emotionally charged activity. High negative emotional arousal can interfere with our ability to clarify our thoughts, choose the right words, and hear and understand what is being said to us2. This can affect our ability to communicate in social work in various ways. If both service user and social worker are in a highly aroused state, effective and useful communications can become impossible. On the other hand, a situation which seems routine to a social worker may be highly arousing for a service user, who may, therefore, present as more aggressive, anxious, confused or compliant than they normally are, a fact that can distort assessments if it is not recognised. Our emotional state may not always be directly related to the current situation – a social worker may, for instance, have come direct from a stressful meeting- but can still distort our ability to make good judgements and communicate effectively.

However, our goal is not communication devoid of emotion, but one based on warmth and respect , and a deep awareness of what the subject of our communication may mean to the other person. True empathy depends on a genuine acceptance of and response to the emotions of another person, and is the bedrock of good communication. It can be demonstrated through such skills as rapport- building and active listening, but ultimately it is more than a technical exercise, and must come from the heart.

Nonetheless, communication is also an activity of the mind, of cognition. We cannot communicate effectively if we do not know what we (or other people) are talking about! Service users and other professional expect social workers to have a good knowledge of procedures, resources, and options, and to be able to explain these with clarity, and in language which makes sense to the hearer.

A major challenge facing social work today is to understand, and even change, what rules govern the communication between social workers and service users. How are they influenced by concepts such as professionalism, empowerment, care management, managerialism, partnership? All of these alter the context of social work, but not in a uniform direction. In the course of these sessions you will be invited to reflect on your own experience of communicating, and the issues that arise for social workers and service users when they need to communicate. The handout on Johari’s window will be a useful tool throughout the sessions, and you will benefit from reading it as early as possible.

Angela Shaw 2005

1 Mehrabian A Silent messages (1971) Wadsworth, New York, quoted in Burton G and Dimbleby R Between Ourselves(1995 second ed) Arnold, London
2 Griffin J and Tyrell I Human Givens (2003) Chapter 9, HG Publishing, UK