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Communication Diversity and the Human Services Worker
Effective communication is more than just passing information from one person to another, we communicate both verbally and non-verbally (Howard 1991) in addition, we all hunger for contact that is meaningful. A communicator enters into relationships with other people (Gamble & Gamble 2008). Healthy communication is essential, we all like to be valued and heard, and it is fundamental to all people from “all facets of life and in all sectors of society” (Bolton 1987, p. 4). Daily, human services workers encounter a diverse range of people, from colleagues to clients, professionals, and the public. Therefore, responding appropriately is necessary for effective communication to occur. “Communication is never neutral” (Tyler, Kossen & Ryan 2005, p. 26) furthermore, we construct our world view from our own point of view as well as the point of view of the culture or society that we inhabit (Tyler, Kossen & Ryan).
Hence, there can be barriers to effective communication when class and low socio-economic circumstances are present. There is a tendency for Australians to look down on low-income earners and those receiving government benefits. To some, a low-income earner has less value because the belief is that they are non-contributors to the wealth and growth of Australian society. While this occurs less in the human services industry than in general, none the less it still occurs.
Terms used within the community such as ‘dole bludger’ have a negative connotation, and present difficulties that impact in an unconstructive manner on low income earners who may already be feeling guilty about their inability to find employment. Careless terms, labels, and negative attitudes build resentment, which has consequences that can flow on from clients to their families, whether from ill health, crime, family breakdowns, or drug and alcohol problems. “Ineffective communication causes an interpersonal gap that is experienced in all facets of life and in all sectors of society…even death results when communication breaks down” (Bolton 1987, p.4). Covey (1989, p. 239) states, “Unless you are influenced by my uniqueness, I’m not going to be influenced by your advice” therefore, building effective “emotional bank accounts” (Covey, p. 239) is crucial for successful communication to occur.
This essay will address issues that confront human services workers and the challenges they face when working with unemployed people from low socio-economic backgrounds.
Australia is supposed to be an egalitarian society but increasingly it is becoming a nation of have’s and have not’s. The divide between rich and poor continues to expand (Barrett, Crossley & Worswick 1999; The Age 1999, cited in Healey 2001). Stratification based on economic and social position is becoming a part of the Australian identity (Hartley 2002). The success of some at the expense of others has also seen growing resentment by those on welfare who see themselves as victims (The Weekend Australian 2000, p. 23, cited in Healey 2001).
Hegemony refers to the dominant classes’ maintenance of social and cultural domination over others (O’Sullivan et al. 1983). It forces people to hand over their power either consciously or unconsciously by creating a ‘power bloc’ (O’Sullivan, p. 102).
Government agencies such as Centrelink, job network centres, and training institutions, which in theory are neutral and are there to represents everybody often exercise their power to achieve hidden company outcomes. As the dominant economic class, they look after the interests of the company first and their clients needs often become secondary.
Unequal power relationships that influence the manner in which people communicate with each other are easy to develop and difficult to dismantle. “The exchange between senders and receivers is an active encounter in which participants frequently occupy positions of unequal power” (Kress 1988, p15). Those on the receiving end feel diminished, unheard, and often defensive. Negative stereotypes on both sides are liable to increase, and self-fulfilling prophecies and conflict occurs because of ineffective communication.
There is growing concern about welfare dependency and the impact this is having on the economy. There is a shift in government policy, the emphasis now is that those on welfare must accept more responsibility for their economic circumstances (Saunders 2005). Community service workers understand that participation in order to lead a rich meaningful life within the community it is necessary to have a healthy self-esteem. They are aware that social exclusion and unemployment deny people the opportunity to participate (Saunders).
Reading body language, paying attention to details and clear effective communication require well developed skills that human service workers need to keep in mind when working with clients. When communication, “the life blood of every relationship” (Bolton 1987, p. 6) is positive, it creates nurturing fulfilling relationships. As fifty-five percent of all communication consists of body language (Hargie & Dickson 2004, p. 46), particular attention to non-verbal communication skills is required. Non-verbal communication such as a sneer, a sense of distain, or body language that is closed, communicates indifference, which can be as damaging as a verbal confrontation.
As a human services worker it is essential that the clients your there to assist do not feel ostracised by the agencies assigned to help them. Human service workers must be conscious of non-verbal behaviour, their own and their clients because non-verbal behaviour often contains significant, misleading, and undeclared messages (Baney 2004).
How people dress, their posture, eye contact and how they walk all convey meaning, and reveal to the observer a myriad of information. Cultural differences need to need recognition, studies show that African Americans and white Americans gaze in opposite directions when spoken to (Hargie 2006), Indigenous Australians also avoid eye contact.
Avoid judgements because for clients to develop a healthy self-concept, judgement does not have to be verbal to be experienced. Judgement is one of the major roadblocks to successful communication (Rogers cited in Bolton 1987, p.17). Most people fear rejection and the surest way to create it in relationships with people is through judgement and criticism.
Our sense of self develops through our interactions with others, we are social beings, and developing self-awareness is an important step in understanding ourselves and other people (Gamble & Gamble 2008). Our self-concept and self-image is often warped and unbalanced, often how we see ourselves differs from how others see us.
Our culture teaches us to repress our feelings, and many people are unaware of what emotionally, is actually occurring inside of them (Bolton 1987). A new counsellor may want to help clients avoid painful emotions, but emotional release encourages healing processes to occur (Geldard & Geldard 1998, p. 50).
An effective counsellor has the capacity to help their clients to feel what is happening within them, by either understanding what the client is verbally expressing, or transmitting by body language. By assisting clients whose body language maybe conveying feelings of inadequacy or inferiority, a human services worker, can bring to their clients’ attention factors that their clients maybe unaware of, and hence the client can begin to address them. Human service workers must be aware that giving advice can create “interfere-iority complex” (Bolton 1987, p. 22) and they must avoid giving advice but rather assist clients to find solutions.
How something is expressed alters reactions, and those with low self-esteem often expect criticism from others, and possibly will read into statements meaning that was never there (Bolton 1987). Human service workers have the ability to reflect feelings back to the speaker, and are in a position to offer assistance that can and does make a difference in people’s lives.
Building self-esteem can mean the difference between employment and continuing unemployment for a client, as a positive relationship exists between career development and the ability to communicate effectively (Bolton 1987, Gamble & Gamble 2008).
Therefore, human services workers are required to have skills that go beyond those of basic communication. Listening, assertion, conflict-resolution, and collaborative problem solving skills (Bolton 1987) are strengths that assist practitioners successfully negotiate interpersonal communication. As Bolton says low-level communication, leads to ineffectiveness, both at work and in personal communication, consequently by developing effective intercommunication skills it will lead to increased competence in all areas of life.
Listening skills are required for successful communication, paraphrasing lets the listener know that you understand what the speaker has said. It allows the listener to comprehend the context of what the speaker said, and therefore the speaker knows understanding has been achieved. Communication skills require empathy and genuineness and need to affirm and validate peoples experiences (Kenny, 1994).
Attending skills, following skills and reflective skills (Bolton 1987) are all a part of listening and allow the listener to demonstrate a clear understanding of what the speaker has conveyed. Listening allows a counsellor to bring to the attention of clients the negative self-talk they may use. Clients can then overcome barriers and create for themselves employment opportunities previously denied with knowledge, new skills, and understanding.
Human service workers are at the forefront in developing new programs aimed at increasing participation within the workforce. They are working for government and job network agencies on programs that address issues such as appearance, attitude, and communication styles. They are aware that “sending solutions” (Bolton 1987, p.20) rather than assisting clients to come to their own conclusions are barriers to empowerment that could undermine a client’s motivation.
“Eighty percent of people who fail at work do so for one reason: they do not relate well to other people” (Bolton 1987, p. 7). Human service workers are adopting principals, with the intention of addressing this problem. They know that with the correct assistance the downward spiral that creates unemployment, class stigma, and low income is reversible.
By assisting low-income earners and unemployed people to understand how their verbal and non-verbal cues are preventing them from leading fulfilling lives can help motivate people to change. Methods learnt as a child can be undone and the barriers broken so that they can participate in a meaningful way, to live fulfilling personal and social lives, as well as gaining employment. Skill building workshops, training workshops, and counselling aimed at improving interpersonal relations are a practical solution in assisting clients to gain the skills required to communicate effectively.
The flow on from that comes from learning how communication barriers lead to anger, ineffectual and damaging social relationships and that a clearer understanding will empower, and assists the disadvantaged members of society. Creating a ripple effect that will be of benefit to the wider community. “Communication is our link to the rest of humanity” (Gamble & Gamble 2008, p.5), therefore as workers in the human services industry by helping clients to win, ultimately we all share the rewards.
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