10 Effective Communication Skills For Social Workers

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Social workers know the importance of good communication. They constantly communicate with people from a diverse range of professional and cultural backgrounds. The list of people that they have to deal with on a regular basis can include clients, co-workers, care providers, government officials, and members of nonprofit organisations.

So, among the social work skills, the development of communication skills for aspiring practitioners cannot be overstated any more than we already have. Due to the nature of a social worker’s job, unclear communication can result in some severe consequences. Some historic tragedies have also resulted from a communication breakdown, whether in the moment or in terms of recordings.

But, what is effective communication in social work? What exactly does it embody?

That’s what we’re going to tackle here in this article.

Table of Contents

What Skills are Needed to Communicate Effectively?

Skilful communication begins with open questions, ensuring all parties are actively listening, clarifying and challenging where necessary. To quote Indeed’s article:

“Communication skills allow you to give and receive information. Indeed employers consistently rank communication skills as one of the most commonly requested skills in 2020 job postings.” 

It does not matter how skilful you are. If you can’t communicate properly, your skills will always go to waste as others will not be able to collaborate with you. Indeed identified ten of the most valuable communication skills. Before you see that list, one important thing is that these skills that I will mention below are essential for everyone who wants to build a successful career, not just social workers. In no particular order, these are: 

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1. Active listening

Active listening means paying close attention to the person you’re communicating with, whether that be verbal or non-verbal. You need to ensure that it’s engaging for you as well as for them, too, asking questions and rephrasing where necessary.

2. Communication method

Knowing when to communicate and how to communicate is also an important skill. It’s not that verbal communication is superior to non-verbal communication or that a physical audience is better than a virtual audience. In specific scenarios, these may be true, but these may not be true at all in other scenarios. This is why knowing which communication method to use is so important.

3. Friendliness

No one wants to talk to that grumpy guy, even if he’s our neighbour. Friendliness can radiate a hint of traits like honesty and kindness. It helps foster trust and understanding when communicating at work.

4. Confidence

Lack of confidence hints at a lack of belief. We usually are not attracted to people who are doubtful of their own thoughts. If you carefully observe any workplace, you’ll see that people are more likely to respond to ideas presented with confidence.

5. Sharing feedback

Strong communicators know how important feedback can be. Nobody can do a task alone. The bigger the project, the more people need to get their hands into it. When they provide constructive inputs, it adds massive value to the overall progress of any project.

6. Volume and clarity

When someone is speaking, we have to ensure that everybody else is hearing him clearly. Audibility is a critical factor in effective communication. But then, being too loud can also come off as being rude. So, we have to be mindful of that too. Clarity is also an important factor here. Clarity refers to the clarity of the message of the speaker. If we communicate 100 words, but the audience only understands 10% of it, the whole process becomes ineffective and will end in unwarranted results.

7. Empathy

Knowing your audience and the emotions that drive them is another essential factor in getting your message across or understanding them. If you cannot share the sentiment of others, it will give birth to miscommunication without any party being deliberate to try not to understand the opposite party. Selecting an appropriate response is also not possible without having this empathy in you.

8. Respect

Respect refers to the importance you give to every party/team member involved. Everyone deserves the same respect as anybody else. That’s why they are in your team. So making sure that they can speak their mind without any interruption and give their input without fearing that a mistake will make them unwanted in the group is a crucial aspect of respect. For ourselves, the critical element would be to know when to initiate communication and when to respond accordingly.

9. Nonverbal cues

Nonverbal cues refer to the body language, facial expressions and eye contact that occurs during a conversation, verbal and non-verbal alike. We need the skills to read these cues and understand what they can potentially mean. Oftentimes, these cues become far more critical than the actual conversation itself.

10. Responsiveness

Nobody likes to wait on a conversation that they have initiated. Other times, the absolute opposite could be true. People sometimes want some time alone before they want to talk- whether that’s to grieve or ponder upon their thoughts or something else entirely. But in general, in the case of both verbal and non-verbal communication, fast communicators are viewed as more effective than those who are slow to respond. It makes the opposite party member feel valued, acknowledged.

You must be wondering by now, if these are the general skills of communication, do they apply to social workers too? Let’s discuss that in the next section.

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Communication Skills for Social Workers

Social workers need to be confident that all decisions made reflect the needs of the people they are working with. The service-users should be at the heart of communication in any social work. In addition to the skills mentioned above, the nature of the job of a social worker warrants them to learn certain micro-skills that form part of a social worker’s communication repertoire.

Different cultures communicate differently. Being aware of it is essential in an increasingly global practice environment.

Filtering incoming messages and making meaning out of them is another vital skill. Self-awareness is the key to unlocking this skill. Social workers need to consider the specific contexts that communication skills occur within and equip themselves for all situations.

In the case where multiple stakeholders are involved, the ability to adjust your written and verbal communications are essential to collaborating effectively. The adjustments can range from adapting our tone to our body language to our writing style. All this effort is invested in accommodating different audiences and settings.

However, the things discussed above are just a tiny sample of the things that comprise communication skills for social workers. The scope of effective communication for social workers involves so much more. For the end, let me introduce you to:

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Dr Johanna Woodcock Ross is a-

keen published researcher, a passionate teacher with over twenty years’ experience (from across three Universities) teaching qualifying social work, health, police and education students at postgraduate and undergraduate levels, as well as post-qualified social work and health practitioners (CPD levels). Johanna is a registered social worker (HCPC) and holds the Practice Educator (Stage 2) qualification, regularly assessing qualifying students and qualified social workers undertaking specialist level CPD for different councils and independent sector organisations (as consultancy).

… Johanna was awarded her PhD from the UCL Institute of Education. She has an MSc in Social Research (distinction) and BA (Hons) Social Policy and Administration (first class) with the Certificate of Qualification in Social Work, both from the University of Plymouth. She also obtained a Postgraduate Certificate of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education from the University of Plymouth.

You can already see how capable Dr Ross is and her contribution to the research done in social work is immense. In a seminar at the University of Kent, she shed light on some crucial aspects that she and her team of researchers found in their study regarding communication in social work.

In the video, you’ll see that the topic that she discusses is specialist communication skills for social workers. She wrote a book on the subject which is already in its second edition.

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She talks about the fact that people have a stereotypical perception that general communication skills and textbook approaches to communication are always transferable in communication for social work. In practice, however, this is not always the case.

A process-driven, bureaucratic approach to social work is not always practical as the relationship between the social workers and the service user gets weakened by it. Instead of relying upon this process-driven approach, social workers need to rely on a more interpersonal relationship with the service user. To achieve this, they sometimes need to switch to informal sources of knowledge in addition to drawing resources from formal knowledge sources like textbooks.

In modern days, to ensure that the social worker can effectively do the things discussed above, they are assessed against the nine domains given in the picture below. Without employing all these domains, the communication between the social worker and the service user will always risk a breakdown. It’s a very different approach than the traditional way of communicating with the service user.

communication skills for social work

Dr Ross also talks about how the notion that traditional communication skills will always come in handy for a social worker is wrong. This is probably best explained with a diagram.

What happened here was that the social worker didn’t sufficiently understand the child’s development process. The parent, being a parent, had some “private knowledge” about their child, which was not “attended to” (actively listening) by the social worker.

However, Dr Ross argues that this transferability of these generic skills does not reflect on the particular setting of the service user. She talks about her research on the communication between the parent of a disabled child and a social worker. Some specific hurdles arose in that setting that affected the communication between the social worker and the parent. What was being spoken about was some systemic issues that the parents encountered in their lives. 

The diagram above shows these ‘generic’ skills employed by the service user.

However, Dr Ross argues that this transferability of these generic skills does not reflect on the particular setting of the service user. She talks about her research on the communication between the parent of a disabled child and a social worker. Some specific hurdles arose in that setting that affected the communication between the social worker and the parent. What was being spoken about was some systemic issues that the parents encountered in their lives. 

The disabled child of the parent was making little but clear progress in development which was often seen in a negative term by the social worker. But the parent’s overemphasis on this development came off as almost at the cost of other aspects of parenting. However, when a “Social model of disability understanding” was put to it, it reflected the systemic barriers that I mentioned earlier.

What happened here was that the social worker didn’t sufficiently understand the child’s development process. The parent, being a parent, had some “private knowledge” about their child, which was not “attended to” (actively listening) by the social worker.

We also have to recognise the fact that the service user is part of a bigger socio-cultural group. At the same time, the social worker is a part of another socio-cultural group. Therefore, to ensure an understanding between these two groups, a “self-awareness” needs to take place, an account of the values and attitude, not just the doing of the job.

However, this is not enough to eradicate the communication barriers between the social worker and the service user. It needs another model, given in the diagram below.

communication skills

By employing all these techniques, the social worker can effectively work around the communication obstacles that they may face. They should identify the systemic barriers that the service user may communicate to them either directly or indirectly. They should also recognise the attitudinal barriers that social workers themselves bring to the communication process. Finally, an acknowledgement and validation of the “private knowledge” of the service user also has to take place in the communication.

Together, these techniques form a much more integrative model with the existing textbook approaches of communication methods of a social worker. Dr Ross’ research is thus not about practical or behavioural skills but rather a reflection on the capacity to communicate.

We also have to recognise the fact that the service user is part of a bigger socio-cultural group. At the same time, the social worker is a part of another socio-cultural group. Therefore, to ensure an understanding between these two groups, a “self-awareness” needs to take place, an account of the values and attitude, not just the doing of the job.

However, this is not enough to eradicate the communication barriers between the social worker and the service user. It needs another model, given in the diagram below.

Conclusion

As you can see, good communication is essential in social work. Communication transfers information between people, and how it’s done affects what is conveyed. Communication skills for everyone else and communication skills for social workers are not quite the same, as apparent from Dr Johanna Woodcock Ross’ research cited earlier. Social work is a very complex profession. However, established practices of good communication that we also discussed in this article are still relevant in social work, albeit with an approach that fits the nature of the social worker’s job. 

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