According to Nelson (1980) social work was one of the first professions to recognise the importance of communications skills and the link to effective practice. Communication skills can be essential to the task of assessment, interviewing and later decision making for social workers. In practice, communication tends to be defined primarily as: ‘The verbal and nonverbal exchange of information, including all the ways in which knowledge is transmitted and received’ (Barker, 2003: 83 in Trevithick, 2005, p 116). The latter elements of communication, which can often translate the emotional content of the communication, are also referred to as interpersonal skills. According to Thompson (2002) social workers use such skills to communicate “ethically sensitive practice” (p.307). The purpose of this essay is to highlight the role and importance of verbal and non verbal communication skills involved in social work practice.
According to Koprowska (2008) communication is both interactive and context related. Therefore, careful consideration needs to be taken when communicating. There may be several barriers involved in communication, such as: authority; language; ability; personality; gender; age; and class (Thompson, 2009). True communication can only be achieved if the barriers are identified and removed. This can be attained by the practice of an anti oppressive and anti discriminatory approach to communication on the part of the social worker.
In practice good communication skills, practically listening and interview skills, are crucial for establishing efficient and respectful relationships with service users and lie at the heart of best practice in social work (Trevithick, 2005, p116). Social workers must demonstrate several skills while assessing or interviewing a client. Verbal communication is a key skill in social work practice and “refers to face to face interactions and involves the impact of the actual words we use in speaking” (Thompson, 2009, p100). It is importance for social workers to be aware of how and what they say in certain situations; for example, in regards to the issue of formality. If the social worker does not access the situation correctly they may be conceived as being too formal or informal and thus will inevitable create barriers. Further, many service users tend to come from vulnerable sections of society. It is possible that their involvement with social workers may invoke feelings of shame or fear. It is likely that this will then leave them vulnerable to feeling misunderstood and not listened to. It is therefore fundamental that social workers treat each client as an individual and assess their situation as a unique case. In order to build a good relationship with each client the social worker must demolish any power or untrusting issues that may be present. This power may be either perceived or real in certain situations. For that reason, congruence plays an important role during the interview process. It may not be completely possible to eradicate the power imbalance but it is a key skill to be aware of the need to achieve congruence. This can be active by using the appropriate language so that the client can fully understand and be listened to. It is through such skills that social workers can convey genuine warmth, respect and non-judgement for the service user. Indeed, verbal communication skills also play a major role when working with other colleagues and professions, and are essential for decision making and assessments (Cournoyer, 1991).
Non Verbal Communication
Non verbal communication is a major component for interpersonal skill repertoire and includes posture, facial expression, proxemics, eye contact, and personal appearance (Kadushin and Kadushin, 1997, in Trevithick, 2005, p120), and it can support or contradict verbal communication. The importance of non-verbal communication is not a new concept in the social work field, in an article by DiMatteo, Hays, and Prince (1986) maintained that there are two dimensions of nonverbal communication, firstly decoding or sensitivity and secondly encoding or expressiveness. According to DiMatteo et al “nonverbal decoding refers to the capacity to understand the emotions conveyed through others’ nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, body movements, and voice tone. Nonverbal encoding refers to the capacity to express emotion through nonverbal cues” (p 582).For example, much of the understanding of non verbal communication can be gathered through using observation skills. Observation skills can be vital for social workers interviewing a client. According to Kadushin and Kadushin (1997) “there are five thousand distinctly different hand gestures and one thousand different steady body postures so precise observation of non-verbal behaviour is important”(P 315). The client may tell the social worker they are coping fine and don’t need any help but by observing their facial expression or lack of eye contact they may contradict this. Sheldon stresses that social workers must be aware of their own “capacity for self-observation, although always somewhat limited, provides us with an opportunity to analyse our own role and impact.” (Sheldon 1995: 132-3 in Trevithick, 2005, p123).
Research has verified listening as the most utilized form of communication. “If frequency is a measure of importance, then listening easily qualifies as the most prominent kind of communication” (Adler & Rodman, 1997, p. 283). Listening may appear to be straightforward but active listening skills need to be learned, practised in training, developed and refreshed for effective use in real situations. Active listening describes a special and demanding alertness on the part of the social worker involved in interviewing a client. For Egan, active listening is about being present psychologically, socially and emotionally, not just physically (Trevithick 2005,p.123). By using skills such as paraphrasing, reflective questioning and open and closed questioning the social worker can convey full interest and understanding to a vulnerable client.
The concept of self-awareness is important in social work interviewing. Burnard (1992) defines self awareness as “the process of getting to know your feelings, attitudes and values” (in Thompson, 2009, p.3). A key aspect of self awareness is being aware how we may be perceived by others. In regards to interviewing the social worker may believe they are being laid back, however for the client it may be conceived as being uncaring. Supervision is therefore an important tool to gain feedback and explored any issues. Further importance of self awareness included understanding how possible external factors may affect social workers. Social workers need to aware of concepts such as transference, triggers and blind spots during interviewing process. Thompson stressed that the worker can be affected by a situation without knowing. Therefore, the ‘use of self’ is extremely important.
Empathy is another important communication skills involved in social work interviewing. This skill involves “understanding or appreciating the feelings of others, but without necessarily experiencing them” (Thompson 2009, p111). Social workers must show sensitivity and respect to the feelings of the client. There is however a difference between sympathy and empathy. Therefore there is a fundamental skill to achieving empathy not merely expressing sympathy.
It is clear from the above information that the failure to achieve efficient communication between the social worker and client can lead to serious consequences. Poor communication can contributed to the harm and inadequate care clients. For example, in recent times such failures of communication among a range of professionals have been highlighted in the public inquiries into the death of several children known to be in the care of social services.(rewrite)