Effective communication is essential to high quality social care – whether in the planning, delivery or reviewing processes. The ability to establish good rapport with clients and their families is invaluable, and to communicate with, and where necessary, to advocate for clients are essential to the social worker’s or care worker’s role.

How to develop better communication in care.

Although some people in social care jobs seem to be naturally good communicators, there is no need for others to feel dismayed – excellent communication skills can be learned – and improved upon – by everyone.

The social care industry works with a variety of different groups – either with adults or children – with a variety of care, support and communication needs. Most care workers and social workers specialise in working with a specific service user group, such as mental health, learning disabilities, physical disabilities, sensory impairments, or older people. Each group can contain people with a variety of communication needs.

We are going to outline some tips for improving your awareness of the social, cultural and language needs of the different groups to enhance communication, including:

  • how to be personal
  • how to gather information about the service user's needs
  • how to put yourself in their shoes
  • how to utilise the power of body language

Personalise.

Whilst there may be certain generic needs attached to each service user group, in the spirit of personalisation and person-centred approaches, every single service user should be treated as an individual with their own needs and wishes assessed and monitored. This includes communication needs. For example, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that blind people require written communication in braille. However, not every blind person can read braille. Similarly, not all deaf people can understand sign language, and many can read lips. Some service users may require communication aids like computer technology, flash cards, communication charts or picture books.

Communication needs should also be noted in care and support plans, for reference by all professionals working with clients.

Gather information.

Where a service user may not be able to speak to express themselves or their communication preferences, a great deal of useful information can be gleaned from family members and informal carers. For example, it is important to be aware of the meaning and subtle nuances of facial expression, eye blinking, sound, gesture and body language in someone who has no spoken language, but communicates through other means.

Where a client uses a language you don’t understand, family members and friends often act as informal interpreters or translators. Where no help is present, and no staff who speak the language are available, a local authority or private interpreter may need to be found. As well as in the case of minority ethnic clients or community languages, this also applies to sign language interpreters, lip-speakers, Makaton and Moon communicators.

General advice.

  • Put yourself in their shoes. Appreciate their situation and emotions – they may be afraid, hurt, wary, angry; but if understand this, you can respond with empathy.
  • People like people who are like them, so to build rapport, mirror their body language and speak at a similar pace, tone and loudness (without shouting above them).
  • Never underestimate the power of body language and facial expression – it speaks volumes.
  • However, be sensitive to their current state. Whilst a smile, or even a grin, is friendly in most situations, it may not be appropriate in certain circumstances.

When working with children, the ability to build trust and rapport with them, especially if they are in child protection, is paramount. If you already work with children, you have probably developed your own good practice, but if not, here are some basic tips:

  • Get down to their level – sit or crouch down, play on the floor with them.
  • Use props. Sometimes it’s intimidating to speak face to face (and for those with autism or Asperger’s, eye contact is avoided), but if you’re drawing, or reading a book, or playing with a doll, or Lego, or apparently paying attention to something else, it’s amazing how the conversation flows.
  • Ask open-ended questions that don’t allow the child to just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ if you can.
  • Speak with ‘clean’ language that doesn’t ‘lead’ or make suggestions – for example, ask ‘what happened?’ rather than ‘Did --- happen?’
  • Bear in mind the child’s developmental age and use of language. Use simple language where necessary, but don’t underestimate or patronise children who do understand a more sophisticated vocabulary.
  • Use pictures. Many children find it difficult to express themselves. Most children can point, if not select a flash card.

Although the these notes are specified for children, the advice can be adapted for adults, as appropriate.