When It’s Hard To Talk

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Communication is not simply a mechanical transfer of information, but takes place within a complex web of emotions, social structures, assumptions, experiences and relationships. All of us, therefore, experience some situations as more challenging than others. As social workers we have to be able to confront and manage those situations which feel uncomfortable to us, and also recognise the challenge which communicating with us may pose to the service user.

There are some situations which are difficult for most people. These include communicating where there is a marked power imbalance, those where there is considerable difference between ourselves and the other person; those where there are practical problems in communicating; those where we have strong emotions about the other person, the situation or the subject to be communicated. Very unfamiliar situations can also inhibit our ability to communicate, as we may feel unsure of the “rules” operating in this context.

The more willing we are to recognise and confront our concerns about specific situations, the more scope there is for anticipating issues and identifying ways to improve our communication techniques in such circumstances. This may involve learning more about a particular culture or situation, identifying sources of support in communicating across barriers, or just generally familiarising ourselves with a specific context.

Where we have strong emotional responses to a situation, it is important to try to identify what is triggering the emotions. We may have experienced difficulty in a similar situation before, or the situation may remind us of a painful experience in some other time of our life. The situation may be inherently very distressing, or even frightening. Sometimes we are frustrated and upset by our own, or our agency’s, inability to provide a solution. Whatever the cause, it is important to acknowledge that we are emotionally aroused. Ignored, emotional arousal will undermine our own ability to communicate honestly and clearly, will interfere with our ability to hear and empathise with the other person, and may raise the emotional tone of the discussion unnecessarily.

There are techniques you can learn to quickly reduce your own levels of emotional arousal, and some times it is appropriate to show the other person how to do this too. However, if you are aware that there is some experience in your past that makes particular situations very difficult for you, you owe to yourself and the people you work with to seek a resolution of it. There are also techniques you can use to defuse potential conflict, but if you have reason to believe that your safety would be at risk in a situation, it is essential that you recognise this, and seek support from your agency in reducing the risk. Ultimately you are doing a disservice to yourself, the service user, and the agency, if a potentially risky situation becomes a reality which could have been avoided.

Research among service users has indicated that they appreciate honesty and openness in communications with social workers. In reality, it is much easier to be open and honest when we expect the other person to like what we are saying! Where we have any reason to suspect that someone will be offended, hurt, disappointed or upset by what we are saying, there is a huge temptation to avoid saying it at all, or to say it in a way that clouds or minimises its meaning, or to close ourselves off from acknowledging the feelings of the other person. In this context, practising the skills of feedback will improve our ability to give information in an open and enabling way, even when we are concerned about its impact. We usually think of feedback as a way of commenting on someone’s performance. It may seem odd to think of giving “feedback” to a service user, but that is essentially, what we do when we respond to the information they have given us, and perhaps to their behaviour, by offering, withholding, or even insisting on, an intervention by our agency. We also need to be able to invite, and hear, feedback from service users and others, on our own performance, without becoming unduly defensive or depressed. Quite often, however, our main problem is in accepting and celebrating positive feedback, and also remembering to give it to others, including service users.