Difficult Conversations: Strengths-Based Practice
Conflict and difficult conversations inevitably arise in social work, whether with parents of vulnerable children, adults who feel their funding is unfair, those with mental health problems, or even with supervisors. Many are reluctant to embark on a career in social work for this very reason. Problems in this area can lead to stress-related time off work and poor productivity, and can make seemingly simple processes last longer than we had anticipated. Human nature means that we can sometimes be tempted to put off these conversations, but this can often make the situation worse. Here we explore the reasons why social workers may have to engage in difficult conversations, and the ways in which they can facilitate better, empathetic communication to avoid the worst possible scenarios.
By its very nature, social work involves engagement with people who are vulnerable, have been flagged as problematic within society, or who need access to certain resources of the state. As far as possible, it is important to show transparency with clients, especially when speaking about budget allocations and resources. This transparency should be from the start. It can help to talk about different possible outcomes, before the final outcome is set in stone. Ask the client what they would consider to be fair, how you can help them manage their resources, and explore the “what if” worst-case scenario. Emphasise that you are there to help, and that many end results are out of your control.
When working with families, you may be in a situation where complaints have been made against an individual in regards to their responsibility or ability to change. In some people’s minds, family social work can be associated with authoritarian removal of children, ignoring the needs of other parties. Try acknowledging this directly with your client. Say that you are looking for a way to help them be the best parent/carer possible, and emphasise that this is a collaborate process. The social worker does need to express a degree of authority and urgency to rectify the situation, which can be challenging to communicate effectively. Again, look at common objectives, such as the well-being and happiness of a child. Emphasise that you both have a responsibility for this, morally and legally, and ask them to suggest strategies. You may have to promote the support of other community or family members to balance any limitations. Work with your client to find the best solutions for everybody, taking into account future risks and the need for positive change.
There are many strategies available make challenging conversations easier. It can be good to prepare well, if you have time for this. Be sure that you have all the facts and alternative suggestions available, jotting them down if necessary. This could include independent assessments or previous observations from your notes. Plan the main points you are going to make, and keep your ideas simple, objective and to the point. Always be diplomatic and be open with differences in opinion. Make sure you listen carefully to the client, giving them time to speak. If they become heated, don’t respond with more of the same. This never works. Imagine being in their shoes, and remember that, just like you, they are not perfect human beings. They will likely begin to take things personally, and could react by attacking you. Stay objective, keep your calm, and listen considerately to what they have to say. Allow spaces for silence; allow emotions to be expressed. If it seems possible and appropriate, use humour to lighten the mood. If you have time, role-play the situation with a colleague or supervisor. This will help you to prepare for different responses.
Remember that a lot of communication is based on body language. What you are saying may not be reflected in your facial expression and posture. If you have time, practice with a mirror. Manage your own emotions, as you are the professional in this situation. The client is likely to be less able to control their emotions, so remain as calm and clear as you can, without reacting. Be proactive rather than reactive, and offer support to your client. Consider taking timeout for a cup of tea, or revisit the client at another time if they are losing their equilibrium. If you need to engage with a child, think about how to build a relationship with them. Build trust by starting with their interests and concerns. You could play with them or draw, or involve another adult who already has a trusting relationship with them. If you can build this foundation with a child, then more difficult conversations will be easier later on.
A good strategy is to use a strengths –based approach, which involves emphasising the strengths and positive characteristics of an individual early on in the conversation, before addressing more difficult issues. Use this to open the conversation, and aim to create a spirit of collaboration. Ask them to reflect t on how they have coped with past difficulties or reductions in resources, and find out what they learned from these experiences. Use empathy and identify strengths in your client which will help them cope with the situation. Help them to see their situation from various perspectives, and remain diplomatic, but firm on the issue at hand. Keep the conversation open, using open questions which begin with phrases such as “Why do you think…”, “Help me understand why…”, or “Explain to me …”. When you close the conversation, explain why the conclusion was agreed by all parties, and talk about the next step.
If the client is becoming overly agitated, remember to focus on the issue at hand, rather than the person. Don’t make it personal. Keep going back to them, allowing them to speak and give their perspective, allowing a balance of power within the conversation. If their reaction won’t let you proceed with the conversation, tell them. Tell them you want to hear their opinion, but this is difficult when they shout. Offer them the option of talking later on, if that is possible. It may be good to anticipate the reactions of aggressive individuals by having a colleague present, or a neutral individual.
Whatever the outcome and process of a conversation, there will always be a crunch point where a decision has to be taken. Here, it is important for the individual to have a clear vision of the next step, and the possibilities available to them. You could suggest some time out to reflect on the exchange. If you can, summarise the main points of the conversation, what has been decided and why, and acknowledge any disappointment they may have. Be clear on the reasons for any particular outcome, and allow them to reflect on the positive aspects for all parties involved.