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Social Workers, Watch Your Language

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How often do you stop to check the words you’re using with client groups, whether verbally or in writing? Are you sure that you’re using a commonly understood language? Or have you slipped into the comfort zone of everyday “colleague speak” when communicating with your clients? At the root of every social work intervention, micro or macro, is communication. Communication is an interesting mix of words and non-verbal cues.

JARGON PICThis is one of the most basic learning curves in our early social work training. We’re taught all sorts of aspects of effective communication such as how to establish rapport, how to structure a sentence so that the question is “open”, what active listening involves and even how to place seating arrangements to avoid barriers.

We spend months learning how to facilitate groups, identifying roles that participants take on, learning skills to redirect conversations, applying conflict resolution skills and ensuring we maintain a cohesive group where everyone benefits from participation.

We also learn how to gather interested stakeholders to lobby for community justice solutions, empower community groups to represent their views to significant bodies and write reports to further the cause and inspire collective action.

All these processes require effective communication skills. And most social workers pride themselves on their communication skills.

When reflecting on practice, how often do we focus on the actual words we’re using?  The words we string together when interacting with our clients. Somehow, through our social work education and consequent experience in the sector, we start to use words that the sector understands but can fail to convey meaning when it comes to many client groups. Not only do we use terminology that is foreign to our client groups, we actually forget how and when to use “plain speak”.

When someone speaks to us in a language we’re not totally familiar with, there is a shift in focus  on trying to understand the words, as opposed to listening to the message that is being conveyed. At best it’s a distraction, at worst a barrier to understanding.

SOCIAL WORK JARGON

What are some examples of social worker jargon?  For starters, there are so many acronyms in both service language and diagnostic language I’m surprised we understand each other: “Mr and Mrs Brown state they are having issues with parenting, mother has diagnosed BPD but no current treatment, eldest child diagnosed with ADHD. Recommend referral of mother to GP for a MHCP,  both parents advised to contact local C&FS for support and Triple P, and check possibility of vacancy in OOSH for eldest child.”

How many social workers have suggested in conversation to their client that they make an appointment with their GP ? What happened to the word “doctor”? Yes it’s easier and faster to abbreviate titles and labels in reports and in rushed conversations with colleagues. But isn’t it ironic that we express concerns at the social media trend of abbreviations such as LOL, OMG and ROFL yet continue to add more acronyms to our professional vocabulary?

Besides acronyms, what about some of those words that we use every day? Words that are part of daily life for us but confusing for client groups? Examples are   Intervention, advocacy, rapport, consumer, resilience, empower, auspicing  and engagement

Ask Joe Public what he thinks these things mean. Don’t be surprised if he  perceives “intervention” to mean “interfere”;  “to build rapport” is to write a report, “consumer” is someone who does the shopping, advocacy is a lawyer thing, resilience is about the strength of metal, community engagement is lots of couples planning a joint wedding, and auspicing is something to do with orphans. Yes, these are real responses!

THE NECESSITY OF JARGON

Jargon is expected in the formal realms of our profession. Report writing, funding submissions and academic reviews are just some examples.  Using complex language is almost a kind of intellectual segregation.  It says I’m educated, and additionally specifies my expertise in a certain realm. It’s a kind of “tribal speak” . My colleagues know exactly what I’m talking about, and by using this same “language”, I portray that I am worthy of being in this tribe called “social workers”. I prove my belonging by speaking native social work. It’s okay to mix in some native doctor speak if I work in a hospital setting, and some native psychiatrist speak if I work in a mental health setting.  I guess I could choose not to, but then I would not be taken seriously by these allied tribes.

But when I transfer this “social work native” language to those outside the profession, I have to remember that translation may well be required. After all, someone coming to me for support, who is already feeling vulnerable, does not need the added distraction of words they don’t understand.

BACK TO BASICS

In summary then, spend some time reflecting on the words you use when communicating with clients. Use language that most will understand. Keep it simple. By going back to basics, you will ensure that meaning is conveyed without doubt or misunderstanding.

Instead of building rapport, “get to know each other”; instead of talking about resilience let’s discuss “the ability to bounce back”; instead of engaging, we’ll “get together and work on some solutions” and instead of advocating let’s “chat to that person on your behalf”. For the sake of those we seek to support –  please mind your language!

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Veronique Moseley is a Social Work Helper Contributor. In Australia, she has spent the last 20 years working in the areas of community development, stress management, adult education and facilitating creative partnerships. With a Bachelor of Social Work (UNSW) and experience in photojournalism and marketing, Veronique is passionate about highlighting the value of creativity, innovation and promotional skills in all areas of social work practice. She is co-founder of Behind The Seen, a preventative program for Australian emergency services personnel to help them and their families deal with the unique stresses they face.

          
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