Power and Communication

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We all operate, for much of the time, within relationships in which the power balance is uneven.  Such power imbalances can affect communication in a variety of ways.  If we feel ourselves to have relatively less power, we may be fearful of saying what we really think, of asking for explanations, or of asking for what we need; we may be inclined to be uncritical of what we are told, or, conversely, angry and distrustful, depending on the quality of the relationship.  If we have the greater power within a relationship, we may be more likely to set the agenda, make assumptions, and be unaware of other people’s opinions or feelings; conversely, we may worry that what we are hearing is what the other person thinks we want to hear.

Power imbalances are inescapable.  Most social workers will work within very hierarchical structures, within which they are expected to maintain agency procedures, and be accountable for their work to several layers of line management.  Even within smaller agencies, social workers are likely to be accountable to a manger, or directly to an employer, and all UK social workers are now also accountable to their relevant Care Council.  Since, ultimately, the social worker’s ability to stay in employment is dependent on satisfying their agencies and the Care Council, their relationship with line managers and others is clearly one in which they have less power.  Student social workers are likely to be keenly aware of this in relation to their practice assessors, but in a sense you will continue to be “assessed” throughout your career.

Social workers may also experience themselves as less powerful than professionals they work with who have greater social status, particularly doctors and lawyers.  Operating successfully within such relationships depends on developing the confidence which comes from a clear understanding and commitment to the particular perspective and values of social work.

Research has shown that service users commonly see social workers as having considerable power, while the social worker themselves, aware of agency, statutory, procedural and perhaps budgetary constraints on their freedom of action, may see themselves as powerless.  It is important, however, for social workers to recognise the considerable power that do have in relation to service users, particularly through their assessments, which act as gateways to services people may want, and may at times introduce into people’s lives interventions that they don’t want.  Whether wanted or not, the manner of a social worker’s intervention in the life of a service user may be experienced as disempowering.1

Power relationships do not only, however, derive from our formal powers.  Members of particular groups, which have consistently experienced disempowerment within the society in which they are based, may feel distrustful and disempowered in all relationships with people outside those groups, regardless of the “official” power balance; conversely, individual members of such groups may have developed considerable personal strength and confidence through challenging such disempowerment.    Individuals also vary considerably in their personal confidence and sense of power; an aggressive, or even particularly self-confident and charismatic, individual may wield great power over a less assertive individual in an apparently more powerful position.

It is important, therefore, for us as social workers to be highly sensitive to the complex dynamics of power relationships.  We have to be able to recognise power imbalances where they exist, and learn how to act appropriately and confidently within them. 

Power imbalances can interfere significantly with communication, by setting the terms of debate and closing down some avenues of discussion.   They also can arouse strong emotions, and these in themselves can interfere with open and accurate communication.  Power imbalances can also be conveyed through communication, through the words we use, our tone of voice, and very strongly through body language 2




1 For more on this see Hugman Richard Power in the Caring Professions  1991 MacMillan
and Braye S and Preston-Shoot M Empowering Practice in Social Care 1995 Open University Press.

2See, for examples, Collett Peter Book of Tells [Paperback] Bantam 2004