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People continually communicate with each other in one form or another whether it be through spoken or written language. Communication is fundamental to social work enabling interactions with service users, carers, communities, professionals and organisations. The following assignment discusses how social workers communicate with a variety of individuals, how this can positively or negatively affects individuals and legislation which affects communication. The assignment will also look at barriers which affect communication and how this can affect individuals, the role self-awareness has ensuring social workers have an understanding of themselves and the effects of personal and professional values on communication. Finally the assignment will look at skills required for effective communication and ways in which these enable empowerment of individuals.
Barker (2003) defines communication as ‘the verbal and nonverbal exchange of information, including all ways in which knowledge is transmitted and received.’ (Cited in Trevithick 2005: 116). Everyone communicates something, social workers need to understand how to and how people communicate enabling relationships, gaining understanding of personal circumstances and experiences through carrying out assessments, writing reports, access resources to address need e.g. multi-agency collaboration. If individuals experience a negative communication the individual may become suspicions, doubt and mistrust the social worker leading to a loss of belief in the possibility of change, however positive experiences can result in individual’s being left with a feeling of hope. (Trevithick 2005).
When communicating social workers require knowledge of legislation regarding the transfer of information, the Data Protection Act (1988) controls how individual’s personal information is used by organisations and government, who are required to follow a set of ‘data protection principles’ including ‘information used fairly and lawfully’ (www.gov.uk). The Wales Accord on the Sharing of Personal Information (WASPI) framework provides protocols and agreements enabling effective collaborative working throughout organisations, enabling barriers to be overcome for ‘sharing information legally, safely and effectively’, while still ensuring the safeguarding individuals. (wales.gov.uk)
some individuals experience barriers which disenable communication, individuals with learning disabilities or specific communication issues including hearing loss or visual impairment experience social issues such as being ignored, treated as stupid, shouted at or people losing patients if they require more time, resulting in individuals being excluded from communication interactions leaving people isolated from society (Cree and Myers 2010). Thompson (2007) suggests age as a barrier stating Children and young people can be seen as unable to ‘legitimately participate in decision making’ being on the ‘periphery of what are seen as adult matters’, some older individuals state they feel the same as becoming ‘elderly’ they are no longer adults having a valid point.
An individual’s language is not just a means of communication it is part of their culture and identity, being able to use a preferred language can impact on professional relationships. Some people feel languages such as English are more important than others, however for Individuals with Welsh as their first language are unable to express need clearly in English due to the issue being discussed or lack of confidence, resulting in a need to swap from English to Welsh, being unable to may leave individuals feeling disempowered and oppressed as needs are not identified. Welsh Language Act became law in 1993 ensuring Welsh became equal to English enabling individuals to access services in Welsh (Davies 2011). This also impact individuals from ethnic minorities whose first language is not English.
To enable effective communication social workers need to become aware of how they interact and communicate with individuals. Burnard (1992) defines self-awareness as ‘the process of getting to know your feelings, attitudes and values [and] learning about the effect you have on others’ (Cited in Thompson 2002: p3). Thompson (2002) suggests self-awareness is gained by understanding own strengths and weaknesses in different situations, recognising any prejudice and accept diversities within individuals enabling confidence in own practice. If self-awareness is not acknowledged there is a risk of creating barriers between themselves and individuals by concentrating on their issues not the issues presented by the individual e.g. traveller communities may require a female social worker to request permission from a senior male to work within their community, the social work may not agree with this but they need to understand the cultural requirements to enable engagement.
Thompson (2009) suggests personal values develop from ‘upbringing, experiences and learning’, impacting attitudes, practice and ability to empower individuals. These values impact us with or without our knowledge and influence every decision social workers makes. Warren (2007) suggests social workers need awareness of own value base for two reason, firstly for awareness of ‘manipulation and control’ which may disenable social workers to fully empower service users. Secondly to enable social workers to identify conflicts which may arise between their and the service users values, such as social workers valuing a good work ethic and the service user not working claiming benefits. Service users and carers also have individual values which impact on how they engage with the social worker.
Professional values are core values within codes of practice and organisations grounded in anti-oppressive practice. The care council for Wales has a set of 6 core values which impact the practice of social workers and employers including ‘strive to establish and maintain the trust and confidence of service users and carers’, social workers need to use good verbal skills such as interviewing skills to enable this (Care Council for Wales 2011) . Biestek (1961) suggests seven traditional social work values which can be reflected in how social workers communicate with individuals. Four of the suggested values link directly to social work engagement with individuals to ensure ensuring a ‘non-judgmental attitude’ which does not including professional judgements which are made by social workers, while showing the individual ‘respect’ and ‘acceptance’ of individual’s strengths and weaknesses as an individual. Social workers need to react appropriately in a sensitive and supportive way understanding the uniqueness of individual and their feelings about situations, acknowledging individuals have knowledge and experience of need, if social workers fail to acknowledge this they are at risk of treating everyone the same and not meeting the individual need. Two values relate to individuals ensuring ‘Client self-determination’ and ‘Purposeful expression of feelings’ by encouraging individuals to discuss and express their feelings openly, enabling partnership working and individuals making decisions about their lives. The final value ‘Confidentiality’ enables the individual to discuss sensitive and personal issues in a confidential environment recognising confidentiality to the organisation not the individual, which social workers need to make service user and carer aware of in the initial meeting as this may impact on relationships making individuals feel deceived if they are not informed. (Cited in Thompson 2009: 127)
Society also portrays values which are reflected in political policy and implemented in legislation, such as how individuals act within society, if individuals do not comply with societies norms they could be arrested, taken to court and issued an ASBO, however there are some values held by certain sections of society which cause the oppression of certain members of society such as people who claim benefits seen as work shy. (Warren 2007)
Thompson (2007) states social workers need to understand communication can oppress individuals, to ensure communication is anti-oppressive and empowering social workers need to ensure they use appropriate communication skills to enable individuals to give their views through involvement in planning, developing and evaluating services resulting in a positive impact on individuals who engage and highlight any barriers which include issues of discrimination and oppression. Communication skills required depend on the situation and individual e.g. using basic language for a child or adults with learning disabilities would differ to giving evidence in court where more professional language is required (Trevithick 2005). Social workers need an awareness of words including gestures, meanings and understanding which may accompany them. The words a social worker uses can create relationships with individuals, but if the wrong words are chosen it can also have a negative impact on the individual, such as using large complex words with individuals could cause feelings of inadequacy and reduce engagement. Good communication involves the use of tone, timing, body language and choice of words which convey information and meaning to what needs to be communicated. Without clarity of purpose and language to describe what is being done social workers are not able to see clearly what individuals’ needs are and if interventions are working. Thompson (2002) states verbal communication can be separated in to two different areas which are what is said and what is heard. Social workers need to be aware of the speed a conversation is conducted, if they speak to fast it can appear they are feeling angry or anxious which the individual may reflect, it can also be hard to follow especially if the person has a hearing impairment or they are not speaking their first language. However if the social worker speaks to slowly it can portray the social worker is unmotivated, very cautious or defensive. Hanley (2009) states having good communication skills is central to empowering and anti-oppressive practice.
Social workers need to ask a wide range of questions as part of interviews which have a wide range of functions including stimulating self-reflection and returning individuals to their knowledge base where self-determination and empowerment can be located. Open questions enable service users to express their thoughts and feelings in their own words, in their own time, this type of questioning forms a major part of an initial interview, however some individuals feel intimidated by this type of questions and might guess the answers. Closed questions are usually answered by yes, no or short answers such as name or age, this sort of question is good for fact finding, where time is limited and keeping the individual focussed. However this type of questioning can lead the service user away from what they perceive as the main issues leading to frustration (Trevithick 2005). Thompson (2002) states empowering interviews are built on strengths to overcome weaknesses or turn weaknesses into strengths. Appropriate interviewing can make an important contribution to empowerment however inappropriate interviewing can cause great harm.
Good listening skills are required in a variety of situations such as carrying out assessments, requiring the social worker not only listen to what someone says but how it is said, when they say it and if certain themes occur. Social workers need to create an environment free from distractions to enable the social worker to listen appropriately. Trevithick (2005) states social workers need to be able to listen to what is not being said which is referred to as a ‘third ear’, being aware of the wider social and cultural context of the individual. By adopting a non-selective approach to listening the intention is to minimise the social workers bias and stereotypical assumptions and follows the lead of the individual to create an opportunity for change.
Non-verbal communication accounts for two thirds of meaningful communication, there can be miscommunication between messages sent and what has been received. Egan (1982) suggests the mnemonic ‘SOLER (Straight position, Open body, Leaning, Eye contact, Relaxed) as a model for non-verbal communication through body language (cited in Hanley 2009:177). The body language of a social worker in relation to what is being said can be confusing if they do not convey the same message e.g. sitting slumped in a chair, avoiding eye contact while carrying out and assessment of need can be perceived as disinterest (Hanley 2009). Trevithick (2005) suggests observational skills are important in understanding non-verbal interactions, enabling social workers to gain understanding of a situation. Observation skills can be used as a general or specific part of an intervention to gain an understanding of the environment as well as the individual. Koprowska (2005) states by using silence this can give people the opportunity to speak, but the social worker needs to appear to show interest in the individual to encourage them to fill the silence.
Lishman (1994) states symbolic communication is important to practice, being ‘punctual, reliability and attention to detail can show the social workers ‘care, concern and competence’ which can make the individual feel they are important. (cited in Trevithick 2005) The way a social worker dresses can also reflect something about the social worker and have a lot of influence on individuals depending on their age, culture and social standing. Returning phone calls can communicate a lot and can start or stop creating a working relationship.
Fanon (1967) states ‘Language is a central aspect of discourse through which power is reproduced and communicated’ (cited in Thompson 2007:5). Social workers have power through decision making and statutory powers, through using effective communication skills, knowledge of value bases and legislation social workers empower individuals to gain equivalent power where appropriate. Social workers collaboratively work with individuals through sharing information, opinions and asking questions based on information and ideas of the individuals to ensure engagement is positive ensuring goals set are specific and achievable, empowering individuals to make positive changes within their lives.
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