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Communication Skills and Values in Social Work

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Published: Thu, 11 Jan 2018

Discuss the use of communication skills and values in social work

This assignment sets out to explore the use of communication skills and value in social work according to three interconnected dimensions. The first section discusses the importance of communication in the practice of social work – including building a rapport with service users and carers, and the importance of empowerment. The second section identifies and explains the centrality of effective communication skills such as negotiation, interviewing and self-awareness. After this, part three considers the impact of personal and professional values on communication. This includes traditional and radical values in social work practice and the effects of communication in ethical dilemmas. The code of practice (CCW, 2002) in the Welsh context is considered throughout.

This first section discusses the importance of communication and empowerment in social work practice with service users, carers and other professionals. Communication is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (2013) as ‘the imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium’. It cannot be described in such narrow terms within social work because of the different techniques involved in working with different service users in a multitude of situations. This involves social workers making judgements and getting to know the service user in order to communicate efficiently to the service users preferred method of communication (Wilson et al, 2008). Communication in social work practice is central to all inter-agency working and to building relationships with service users and carers. Good communication as a social worker requires the expertise to be both sensitive and understanding of their situation in order to build rapport with the individual (Trevethick, 2000). Rapport is how the social worker contacts and engages with the service user and carers. Developing a rapport starts with an introduction which forms the basis of the relationship, particularly as it is important to gain an understanding of the service user. This involves discussing their background, values, culture and needs, which will help develop the rapport (Knapp, 2009).

The fundamentals of communication in social work are voice and speech, body language, hearing, observing, encouraging and remembering. These skills can be used in introductions with service users and their families/ carers. Introductions can be uncomfortable and worrying for the service user if they are unsure what a social worker is there for and it depends on their previous experiences, if any. To ease this process an introduction exercise can be implemented – for example a genogram can be drawn by asking the family to collectively describe each family member in the house and those they would describe as their support and closest to them. Put simply, a genogram is a very detailed family tree using symbols to represent relationships (Parker and Bradley, 2010). This will help build a relationship with the service user as well as gain information and observe their reactions (body language) when working together and when talking about family and friends. This will show some key skills on the social workers behalf such as, listening, speech, remembering and encouraging.

Active listening uses a combination of talking and listening skills to make the service user feel you understand their situation, and encourages them to place trust in the social worker (Cournoyer, 2011). It involves positive body language and speech to invite/enable the service user to express themselves. More specifically, body language is expression through movement and facial expressions which convey emotion. Social workers should use body language to make service users feel more comfortable but also pay attention to whether the service user is showing signs of aggression, trying to hide something, or seems happy in the situation.

Empowerment is a process promoted by skills and should involve the service user. It aims to emphasise the rights and needs of people who may be oppressed by society (Leadbetter, 2002). Empowerment can be delivered in many forms, for example, personal, organisational, community based, family, group or team empowerment. Personal empowerment helps service users to gain control over their situations and overall empower themselves and others to enable change. Organisational empowerment supports staff in an organisation, promoting morale and motivation in workers so they are happy to take on more responsibilities and go to work. Community based empowerment supports the community to challenge inequalities and exclusion so everyone who lives in a certain society can feel a part of the community and take control of their environment. Family, group or team empowerment focuses on allowing each person in the group to help each other and themselves collectively. They can call on each other for support and help if they need to fight oppressive behaviour (Adams, 1996).

The second section discusses effective communication skills and how they support anti-oppressive practice. Skills are ‘the ability to carry out a particular activity effectively and consistently over a period of time’ (Thompson, 2005:81). Skills that shape the way social workers communicate are interviewing, negotiation and partnership and self-awareness (Thompson, 2005). An interview is a conversation with meaning and the beginning of change (Trevethick, 2000). Social workers use interviews to collect data and to build a face to face rapport with service users. An interview should be natural and the service user should not feel like they are being treated according to a checklist just going through the process, as this could be seen as oppressive if service users are not treated as individuals. The service user should have an understanding of why the social worker is there and has the right to know the process that has taken place to get to the interview. A key skill of interviewing is directing, this means although there should be a steady flow the social worker needs to keep the conversation on the subject that they are there for in a subtle way. This can be done by using phatic conversation as glue to keep it social and help keep a relationship going but redirecting to the main issue so it is a healthy balance for both taking part. It is better to use questions that will not give the service user the answer, especially children because this could create a story that is not exact. For example use, where did you get that bruise? Instead of did your mum give you that bruise? Open ended questions allow service users to expand on answers and give information that the social worker may not have thought to ask about (Hepworth et al, 2010).

Negotiation and partnership is an essential part of interagency working. Working in partnership with other professionals requires a level of negotiation when both services have different/alternative ideas of what is best for the service user. Professionals who work together quite commonly are social workers and health care professionals. Everyone involved in interagency team should have a clear role and have an understanding of each other’s place/responsibilities in the team and their point of view. Negotiation may take place in deciding the best solution for a service user. However, there may be a hierarchy between the professionals causing tensions in decision-making. This would need to be resolved in order to work in partnership. This can be achieved by building relationships and achieving trust and mutual respect through communication (Atkinson et al, 2007). The code of practice (6.5) states social workers should always treat colleagues with respect and work openly and co-operatively with them (CCW, 2002). Negotiation also takes place with service users’ in the decision of the best solution for their situation. Keeping the service user involved with all decisions helps maintain the service users’ trust and confidence in social services. This is anti-oppressive practice, which involves social workers empowering the service user to take control of their lives and help contact people in their society in similar situations. This is to help them feel part of society no matter their culture, language or lifestyle. It is seen as part of the social workers job to get rid of oppression in society (Dominelli, 2002). For example, by using a language interpreter this will make the service user more at ease and allow them to get their point across better.

Social workers need a level of self-awareness to convey attitudes, the correct emotions and self-control. Without self-control personal issues and emotional attachment to a situation could be expressed which could cloud professional judgement. The situation should always be focused on the service user and the social workers thoughts of their personal perfect solution may not coincide with the service user (Cournoyer, 2011). The code of practice (2.6) states social workers must declare issues that may create conflict of interests and making sure they do not influence their judgement or practice (CCW, 2002). The skill of self-awareness grows overtime with experience in practice, it teaches social workers to think on their feet during communication and difficult situations, deal with stress and tackle all obstacles as completely different when dealing with different people (Cournoyer, 2011).

This third, and final, section considers the impact of personal and professional values upon communication within social work practice, including how ethical issues arise in communication. Personal values need to be taken into account because they will frame many decisions; it’s the social workers instincts about safety and danger that decides, for instance, whether it is safe for a child to stay with their parents. However, personal values need to coincide with professional values because social workers cannot let personal judgements shadow their professional obligations to help all service users and abide by the code of practice (CCW, 2002). For example a social worker cannot express their personal opinions to a service user through verbal or non-verbal communication. They have to treat them with professional courtesy despite their personal feelings towards them. Social work values are underpinned by traditional and radical values. Traditional values focuses on being non-judgemental, protecting confidentiality and treating the service user with dignity and respect (Biestek, 1961). This follows the anti-oppressive practice of treating everyone as individuals and to not compare two different cases. These values underpin the core principles of the code of practice (CCW, 2002). Radical values are more modern views of social work practice which involves the service users taking more action to solve their problems themselves. For example, empowering the service user to have more confidence to build a partnership with their social worker and give input into their own plans for the future (Thompson, 2000).

According to BASW code of ethics (2012) ‘professional ethics concerns matters of right and wrong conduct, good and bad qualities of character and the professional responsibilities attached to relationships in a work context.’ Ethical issues can arise because social workers promote the welfare and rights of service users but the end result may not coincide with what the service user thinks is the right decision for them. This could cause communication barriers/issues because social workers support service users to be a part of deciding their own life changes then in some circumstances this power can be taken away from them. For example, an elderly woman wants to be able to live at home but she does not have the support and her dementia and mobility is deteriorating. The decision is made that she needs to go into supported accommodation, this effects the social workers relationship with the woman and the service users whole demeanour changes towards the social worker including body language, attitude and facial expression.

In conclusion, communication verbal and non-verbal resides at the core of social work. It is utilized in all areas of social work as an essential part of the job. Communication is used in services for elderly, children, people with disabilities, drug and alcohol abuse and mental health. It is used to build relationships, create solutions and to negotiate plans for service users. It is important that social workers work to always improve these skills and complete training so they can learn from other professionals’ experiences of how different service users, carers and professionals like to work in partnership. This includes how to communicate with people who may not want to co-operate to begin with but can use negotiation skills to improve the relationship.


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