Communication: It’s Not All Talk

When I first started at the NSPCC I went on a course at the Tavistock entitled Therapeutic approaches to working with parents and infants. This was a part-time course, one day a week. It was a hugely interesting and influential course that changed my practice. For my professional development I needed the course to develop my practice as the majority of my social work practice up till then had been in probation, largely working with adult offenders, albeit with a few family court cases.

The course included one day a week in London and one hour a week child observation. The latter was a crucial part of the course and any people who have attended the Tavistock will know how central child observation is to their approach; it is the unique selling point of their work, heavily influenced by a psychotherapeutic tradition.

My work at the probation service had mostly consisted of individual work, writing court reports and a considerable amount of group work. Communication in the majority of my work was, therefore, largely through verbal and written means, though particularly in group work observing how people interact plays an important part. Yet too often we fail to recognise that non-verbal aspects are in many respects more important than words. In my view as social workers we frequently rely on words as our main medium of communication; part of the reason for this is that we live busy lives. Yet observation of a carer-child relationship has to be central to our practice.

The child observation element of the course required me to observe a child; in my case this was a baby, a six-week-old girl. The rules were that I had to observe the child for an hour a week for a year and I was not allowed to take any notes during the hour. After I left the house I would try and write up my observations as soon as possible. My skill as an observing writer developed as the year progressed, albeit my recordings for the first few weeks largely consisted of my discussions with the mother, a person whom I had never met before and who had been selected by a local health visitor.

During the year I learnt that too often we go straight to solutions and as a consequence we set both ourselves and families up to fail. Sometimes we need time to see and reflect on what is going on; problems take time to build up and develop and cannot be solved in a one hour session. People and families have complex histories and exhibit problems in very individual ways. If we are to communicate with children, young people and their families we need to observe them and not just talk to them.

Communication is not just about the spoken word. In actual fact that is only a small part of the process; understanding people’s lives is complex. Sitting down and talking to children can be very difficult. There is a power imbalance  – between the adult and the child, or between the professional and the ‘amateur’. Language may be the normal form of communication for many adults but children and young people often feel constrained by words.

I always found art as a good way for children and young people to express themselves; it can often be less threatening and in many ways a more expressive way of communicating feelings.   All of us process information using the senses; the majority of us using visual images to remember and yet we frequently concentrate on words and therefore cannot ‘hear’ the true meaning of what is being said.

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