Additional information

More information about theories of communication

Communication is, at its most simple, 'social interaction through messages' (Fiske 1990: 2). Thompson (2003) unpacks this further.

The 'social', he suggests, implies that communication takes place in a social context, and that context has a bearing on the success or otherwise of the communication and the nature of the communication. It is therefore not just about transmitting information from one setting to another; rather, it is about communicating a relationship. Thompson goes on to make a distinction between the 'basic' message we want to convey, and the 'meta' message (that is, how we want someone to take the message). He adds that how we convey the message might be intentional or unintentional (e.g. if we are nervous in a given situation).

Another way of thinking about communication is offered by Rosengren (2000: 38), who argues that 'we cannot not communicate'. This means that we communicate all the time — even when we are trying to convey as little as possible. We are 'prisoners of our physiology', because we will blush and show discomfort even when we try not to do so.

Thompson (2003: 12) also makes the point that our actions are based not simply on the objective world out there, but on our subjective interpretation of that world. So we have an interaction between the subjectivity of the individual, and her or his perception of the wider social world and objective dimension.

Thompson traces the development in models of communication from the earliest to the most recent:

Process model — psychological research from the 1940s onwards understood communication as a process of a transmitter, a noise and a receiver — 'noise' sometimes gets in the way and interferes with the communication (e.g. distractions or emotions). This has been criticised more recently as not taking enough account of the social context or of meaning.




Semiotics — offers a different approach, with a focus on symbols and meaning. So, words are understood as forms of sign, which tell us about culture, and about power. Thus some meanings are valued while others are not — there is a hierarchy of meanings, with some given more weight and acceptability than others. And some words and gestures will have different meanings in different cultures.

More recent post-modern and post-structural approaches take this even further. For example, Foucault (1972) and other sociologists argue that power relations are embedded in discourses (in ideas and practices) which create and recreate the world which we know. Much of this is unexplored — we take it for granted — it is the 'wallpaper of our lives', unremarkable and simply the way we see the world. This approach to communication challenges us to examine this critically, perhaps for the first time — to realise that language does not simply reflect reality; it also constructs reality.

On a similar vein, Bourdieu (1991) argues that some people have more 'cultural capital' than others. Through their education, upbringing and social class, they are in a stronger position to operate within a range of social situations and to communicate with them. So, we do not start on a level playing field, and, in the scenario, there will be interesting issues to explore in relation to Jean and Nazra's very different situations. Jean's working class background, and her lack of higher education, may make her feel less 'in control' than we might assume at first sight.

More information about giving and receiving feedback

Doel et al (1996: 75-78) suggest that there are eight stages in giving feedback and six stages in receiving feedback. The following paraphrases the main points they make here:

Stages in giving feedback

  1. Become aware of your own style of giving feedback — when did you last give someone feedback, was it easy, was it constructive, was it to a man or a woman, was it balanced?
  2. Prepare the ground rules beforehand — just like ground rules for working with groups these are ways of creating a sense of safety in supervision, and they are important to respect once they have been set up;
  3. Understand the impact of differences in power — we know how this impacts on communication in general so it will around feedback too, as will the differences in culture, ethnicity, age, class which are present in our scenario;
  4. Be clear about the purpose of feedback — it is important to ensure that the improvement in practice for the benefit of service users always underpins your purpose, so it is important to think about the consequences of not giving feedback;
  5. Seek the views of the person to whom you are going to give feedback — you are always trying to evaluate a learner's insight into their own practice, so asking them about the practice first is important; notice that Jean provided Nazra with an opportunity to say more about the visit even though Jean may have had her own anxieties about Nazra's practice;
  6. Be specific and giving reasons — you will notice that Jean explained why she was affirming of Nazra's honesty, she did not just say it was a 'good thing', she was specific about why — this explanation is important for learners;
  7. The 'keep/change' rule — Doel et al state that this is a useful format for giving affirming and challenging feedback, and assists the educator to be balanced in giving feedback;
  8. Review the feedback ground rules — it is always useful to review how the supervisory relationship is being experienced — perhaps half way through the practice learning — so reviewing how feedback is being experienced can be part of this review.

Stages in receiving feedback

  1. Be aware of your own responses to receiving feedback — do you find it difficult to receive affirming feedback; do you become defensive in receiving challenging feedback?
  2. Ask for feedback — you will notice that Jean asks Nazra for feedback, this gives Nazra the message that Jean is prepared to change what she is doing and it helps to lessen the power difference;
  3. Do not become defensive — treat feedback as an important source of information is the most constructive approach, but sometimes difficult and it is important that the receiver feels constructive suggestions are being made about change;
  4. Respond to unfair feedback — there can be many 'selves' in the practice setting, and various emotions attached to each one which can spill over into supervision, or be 'touched' by feedback perceived to be unfair or critical. Coming back to the ground rules for feedback will be important in these situations, and then exploring any gaps in perception between the educator and the learner;
  5. Sweep up later — receiving challenging feedback (even if given well) can feel upsetting and it can impact on what you do next, so it's important to try revisit the feedback as soon as you can to gain some control over what changes are being asked for;
  6. Report on changes brought about by feedback — giving & receiving feedback requires thought, planning, respect, energy, risk and trust. Jean would appreciate Nazra feeding back what had helped her change her practice and Nazra would appreciate feedback on what changes Jean sees in her practice over time. Both Jean and Nazra will gain positively from this process.

More information about non-verbal communication

It is important that in situations of unequal power relationships (such as in practice and in education), we need to think about what might be going on. Yet we are often not very good at taking notice of non-verbal cues.

Drawing from the work of Koprowska (2005), non-verbal cues may include:

Facial expression — are often fluid, changing, and fleeting, so they can be difficult to interpret, but we look for these expressions as we speak in order to try to 'read' the listeners responses as we speak.

You may notice that Jean plays close attention to Nazra's facial expressions while she asks Nazra about her impact on Paul, as she senses that there will be an emotional response to what she is saying. Jean may use her own facial expressions consciously to convey information to Nazra e.g. smiling to convey 'it's all right', whereas Nazra may be less aware of what her facial expressions are conveying due to concentrating on thinking what to say.

Eye contact — Nazra comments on Paul's lack of eye-contact with her, and she clearly finds this difficult. Thompson (1996) comments that 'too little eye-contact can be problematic because there is a tendency for it be interpreted as one or more of the following: boredom/lack of interest; disapproval or antagonism; lack of confidence or assertiveness; or even shiftiness / untrustworthiness'.

In Paul's situation, it may not have been any of these, but Nazra has no way of interpreting this non-verbal cue unless she seeks more information from Paul and from others who know Paul. She is also unaware, at this stage in her training, that research suggests that there are gender differences in the use of 'gaze' — that women use 'gaze' more than men (Henley 1995), so in an ordinary interaction she could expect Paul to look at her less than a woman service user might (depending, of course, on the individual woman).

Posture & movement — we all 'hold' our bodies in a particular way during interactions with others, and the way we choose will communicate information to another person. For example, during her interview with Paul Nazra held herself 'tightly' and did not consciously try to relax her body — despite Paul's own mood. He will probably have sensed her unease. This was part of the reason why Jean assessed that it was important for Nazra to learn to take more control of her body and gave her material on 'grounding techniques'.

Clothing and artefacts — at the start of Nazra's practice learning she probably asked (as advised by the University) Jean about the 'dress code' that was expected within the organisation. Jean will have explained the variety of circumstances where she might dress more formally in order to communicate respect for the occasion/setting (e.g. in Court).

You may have noticed that Nazra talked about Paul's clothes, and she placed a meaning on what she thought his clothes communicated about his feelings — this might not have been accurate, but it was 'information' for Nazra. Also, you may have noticed Nazra started to fiddle with her watch strap when Jean started to ask her about her up-bringing, Jean might have noticed this and interpreted it as Nazra feeling some discomfort.

Orientation — this refers to the way we face when we are speaking to another person. You may have noticed that in the supervision session Jean & Nazra are not sitting directly opposite each other; Jean has placed the seats purposefully in order that they are at an angle to each other which she hopes will feel less formal for Nazra.

The issue of 'orientation' might have been another aspect of Paul's non-verbal cues which Nazra found difficult — at times he did not face her, or speak directly to her when he spoke, and she could have found that she felt 'invisible' to him; her experiences to date could have led her to expect another person to acknowledge her presence when she is with the person.

Proximity and the use of touch — in the circumstance of Paul's flat Nazra placed herself some distance from Paul, as this would have felt comfortable for her; if she had been visiting a woman service user she might have felt comfortable with less distance. There are culturally influenced 'rules' about how close we stand to each other in specific circumstances, and Nazra was aware of this to some degree when she talked about her comfort with proximity and touch in working with children.

Thompson (1996) considers the use of touch to be very effective in the following circumstances: 'providing comfort & reassurance when a person is distressed; demonstrating solidarity; calming someone who is agitated; showing respect (e.g. a handshake); and praising or congratulating someone'.

However, he adds that 'when it is used inappropriately or indiscriminately it can: invade privacy; embarrass; intimidate; destroy trust; or constitute sexual harassment'. We noticed with Nazra that she was able to reflect on her experiences with men in distress and this did not appear to include use of touch, so Jean would have to take this learning into account when assisting Nazra to develop an array of professional skills — she might have to assist Nazra to provide through her verbal behaviour what might for someone else be comfortable to provide through non-verbal cues.

More information about speaking

Speaking is a complex business with a huge number of pitfalls if we are not aware of some of the possible issues.

Rules — through living and learning in social environments we all learn a range of ways of communicating, usually without realising it (unless we move into a different culture and start to be aware of our assumptions about the meanings embedded into communication). Nazra was puzzled when Jean asked her about her experiences of communicating with men in distress. This was because she had not had to think about this before.

One of the 'rules' of speaking is 'turntaking'. In the formal environment of supervision, we observed Jean and Nazra adhering to this rule in a strict way, neither individual interrupted the other. In less formal settings, this 'rule' will not be followed in this way, and Nazra in her work with children will have experienced this very differently, and she might have been engaged in assisting children to learn to take turns in talking.

Power — who is allowed to speak? The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1972) argued that by looking at discourse (that is, ideas and practices) it is possible to identify power and how it works. We have already noticed that in the supervision meeting, it was Jean who held the agenda. This seemed OK for this early stage of the practice learning, but should not be allowed to become a pattern which cannot be shifted.

Power isn't just about who is allowed to speak though. It is also about what can be said, and not said. From Nazra's point of view, she cannot say that she is absolutely terrified of Paul — after all, what will Jean think of her if she does? It has to be acknowledged that Nazra will be acutely aware in all her communications with Jean that she has the power to pass or fail her practicum. This will have an effect on all her dealings with Jean throughout the period of practice learning, no matter how democratic or warmhearted Jean may appear to be.

Phatic communication — this is a linguistic phrase which refers to the small talk that we engage in, often to lead in and out of more formal communication. In our scenario we did not see this aspect between Jean & Nazra, however the presupervision process involved in getting a hot drink and 'small talk'- 'phatic communication'.

For example, Jean might have asked about something social that Nazra had been involved in — as long as this was a non-threatening topic for Nazra. Thompson (2003) notes that phatic communication in Britain can often focus around the weather.

Essentially the purpose of this communication is to start in a shallow way to indicate 'friendliness' before moving into more depth of communication. Nazra will need to learn — if she does not already do this — to engage in this way with service users. The end of supervision (and contacts with service users) will also be marked by 'phatic communication'.

Meaning — Thompson (2003) talks about the three interrelated levels of the personal, cultural and structural contexts for each individual impacting on the meanings that 'we seek to convey and to those we receive'. At the personal level he talks about 'identity and emotion' (which we look at in other places); at the cultural level he considers the 'the shared meanings, assumptions and understandings which have developed historically in a given community (geographical community, community of interest, or a professional community)'.

One of the aspects of meaning around which any student/learner needs to develop an understanding is that of 'workplace culture'. For example, the way that humour is used within a workplace can be confusing for a student/learner — does it convey disrespect for service users?, is it a way of relieving stress within the private space of an office? In Jean's workplace it will be important that she is able to be objective, stand back and notice the way different 'meanings' could be attached to how her colleagues behave, and to talk to Nazra about these meanings.

Thompson's third level is the structural — that is the ways in which power and life chances are distributed in line with social divisions such as 'class, race and gender' (this relates power as described previously).

'Politically correct' language — one of the ways in which efforts to challenge discrimination and inequality is often resisted is through deriding the language used within these efforts towards change. Clearly, changes in language in themselves do not change the life chances of communities on the receiving end of unequal treatment, but language is a symbolic part of change processes. In the process between Jean and Nazra there could be a number of areas of difficulty. For example, if Jean has not received, or made use of, education around race equality she could feel nervous about how to talk to Nazra about her ethnic minority identity — language could become a barrier instead of a source of exploration and developed understanding.

For Nazra, if Jean, for example,referred to having a 'night out with the girls', and Nazra had specific views about the way women can be infantilised through the use of language and reacted negatively to this phrase, a distance could be created which neither is able to talk about. The way through these difficulties is one that requires an understanding of the way language conveys meaning and that it is a political matter in the sense that it is one of the contested areas in the struggle to define the world.

Para-language — this refers to the pitch, volume, speed, tone and sound effects which accompany spoken words. You may have noticed that points in supervision where Nazra's speech slows down or becomes quieter she is communicating something to Jean beyond the words she is using.

As well as these aspects which accompany speech, there can be different meanings attached to the same words, and learning within specific disciplines requires the development of different understandings about particular words. For example, if Nazra had not studied psychology she might not have understood the phrase 'hearing voices' as anything other than what the actual words suggest, she could have interpreted another worker talking about this as Paul hearing his neighbours next door, rather than an internal process associated with a particular diagnosis within some schools of mental health knowledge.

More information about listening skills

Egan (1986) introduced the idea of 'active listening' to stress that we need to listen to different things — words, non-verbal cues, 'sour notes' and the wide context. He suggests that communication is 8% words, 56% facial cues and 36% other non-verbal cues. But listening is not a straightforward process — there can be a number of difficulties. For example, if Jean had not ensured privacy for supervision and there had been interruptions (phone calls or other workers) this would interfere with the concentration for both individuals. Also if there was outside noise or the room was too hot or too cold — these could cause distractions and impact on the listening capacity of each person.

Lishman (1994) notes that she becomes alert if she starts to find difficulty in listening attentively or feels boredom, as this signals to her that she needs to work out if the difficulty rests with herself or the other person e.g. asking 'what does my boredom mean?'. She suggests that it could signify that the other person has low self-esteem, feelings of not being worthy of attention or depression, or that she is feeling distraction or defensiveness.

Egan (1986) outlines a variety of other blocks to listening:

  • Inadequate listening
  • Evaluative listening
  • Filtered listening
  • Sympathetic listening

Inadequate listening — can be due to illness, overtiredness, or anxiety. In our scenario if Jean was anxious about the impact of Nazra's practice on Paul this could have interfered with her capacity to listen to Nazra and focus on Nazra's learning. If we find the person we are listening to very attractive or unattractive this can interfere with listening too — this can be an issue in practice learning both in mixed gender and same gender situations.

Another distraction could have been if Jean realised that she had had a very similar experience to Narza and she started to think too much about this instead of allowing it to inform, rather than distract from the attention she was giving Nazra.

As well as similarity, difference can generate inadequate listening, for example, Jean might have become too focused on Nazra's ethnic minority 'self' and this could have resulted in inadequate attention to other aspects of Nazra e.g. her being a young woman, her lack of experience in working with adults.

Evaluative listening — is a complex area in terms of an educator/learner situation because an assessment process is part of the listening experience. However, if Jean found herself thinking Nazra's practice was 'wrong' or 'bad' it would have been difficult for her to engage in a non-judgemental way with Nazra's learning. Conversely, if Jean was keen to focus only on 'affirming' feedback she might have only talked about 'right' or 'good' practice, and this also would not assist Nazra's learning — even if it resulted in both individuals feeling good.

Filtered listeningEgan (1986) suggests that 'filters' are the way we pay attention to some, ignore other, information. In a positive way they allow us to classify, generalise and predict, but negatively they led to prejudice and bias. For example, Jean's working class background and gender could mean she viewed Nazra's comfortable background as a privilege and as result felt less empathy for her during the early difficulties of practice learning. Thompson (2003) notes that one the 'myths of language' is a mistaken assumption that, 'certain accents indicate a low level of intelligence'. This dangerous and discriminatory assumption could operate if Jean retains her original accent and Nazra had a negative assumption about Jean's intelligence, and therefore her skill as a practice teacher, as this would impact on Nazra's respect and her openness to learning.

Sympathetic listening — On the other hand, 'sympathetic listening' could occur if Jean over identified with Nazra's feelings and moved into a 'rescuing' mode in supervision — in this situation she would have been less able to note the negative impact that Nazra's practice had had on Paul, and so she would not have attended fully to Paul's safety and rights to a constructive service.

More information on written communication

Cree & Macaulay (2000) set down the following different kinds of communication in practice learning:

Agency records: these will need to be written and structured according to agency conventions and styles of writing. These may be typed straight onto a computer database.

Agency reports: again, these are likely to follow a specific format set in advance.

Academic assignments / practice studies / practice reports / portfolios: the format for these will be set by the university at which the student is studying, and will be broadly derived from the standards for social work education. All universities place a high value on the integration of theory and practice, and will expect students to demonstrate that their practice is informed by best, up-to-date research evidence.

Parker (2004: 117) offers the following simple advice on preparing and writing the self-evaluation report:

  • Gather evidence, using a wide range of sources
  • Use interim reports to monitor development in practice
  • Follow guidance given by the university and agency
  • Check that the evidence meets the guidelines set by the university
  • Write simply and clearly

Working agreements/learning agreements: again, the format for these will vary from university to university, but they will all cover roughly the same kind of material, and this will include:

  • Names and contact details
  • Details of student's background and learning needs
  • Details of learning opportunities
  • Practice teaching arrangements
  • Expected periods of leave during the practice learning experience
  • Practical arrangements (hours of work, study time, accommodation etc)
  • Methods of assessment to be used
  • Signatures (adapted from Doel et al 1996)

Supervision notes: these may be recorded jointly, with the practice teacher and student taking turns to write, or they may be kept solely by the student. They are likely to include a record of decisions taken in relation to service user contact, and an identification of learning needs and evidence for self-assessment. Parker (2004: 84) offers a useful example of written supervision notes.

Process recordings: these invite students to write a verbatim report of an interview, and at the same time, write down their observations and feelings alongside this account. The process recording is sometimes presented in the form of three columns: the first is what happened (the interaction); the second is thoughts and the third feelings.

Critical incident analysis: here a student describes one specific incident or scenario in depth, giving a highly detailed account of what took place. Any incident can be chosen, because any event or interaction is potentially significant for students as learners.

One framework for a critical incident is as follows (in Cree & Macaulay 2000:141):