Communication & practice learning

Authors: Viviene Cree and Marianne Hughes

The supervision meeting

In this meeting, the practice teacher encourages students to reflect on:

  • what happened?
  • what was going on?
  • how else might the interaction have been handled?
  • what should happen next?

The video you are about to see is made up of 5 stages. Each Stage illustrates different aspects of communication. Watch the role-play and make up your own notes about what you see.

Themes: social context | theories of communication | giving and receiving feedback

We are now going to look at the supervision meeting in detail. You can choose which aspects you wish to explore now and which you wish to come back to later. Please be aware that this list cannot be exhaustive - there will inevitably be aspects which we have either highlighted or missed which others will notice. This is the nature of communication - it is always affected by who we are and how we see the world. An awareness of the partial and subjective nature of communication is the beginning of an understanding of communication.

Social context

At its most simple, communication is "social interaction through messages" (Fiske 1990:2). All communication takes place in a social context. The social context here is a supervision meeting: it is an arranged meeting, in an office setting, and the messages being conveyed are formal, educational ones. (Just imagine how different the meeting might be in a café or a bar!) What we see here is that it is Jean who tends to ask questions and Nazra who answers. Through this process of communication, Nazra and Jean confirm their positions as learner and educator. Of course this balance will have to shift as Nazra gains in confidence and develops professional autonomy. But this is an early supervision session and Nazra is, as yet, very much in the learning role.

Theories of communication

Thompson (2003) argues that communication is a highly complex activity which requires a range of social, interpersonal and organisational skills. While early research on communication was psychological, more recent research focuses on the social and sociological aspects of communication.

More information on theories of communication

Giving and receiving feedback

We see from the scenario that Jean introduced Nazra to the idea of feedback at the beginning of the practice learning opportunity (she returns to this later in stage 5 using a particular format for giving feedback. Doel et al (1996: 74)). The art of giving and receiving feedback is not well developed in the UK; we often avoid giving negative feedback in case we are seen as too critical and we treat positive feedback with suspicion - what does he/she want from me?? But in educational terms, receiving feedback is crucial to a learning process, and is useful to reflect on our own experiences of feedback as this will influence our attitudes towards, and skills in, this area of educational practice.

More information on giving and receiving feedback


Think about the last time you received feedback. Maybe it was a staff appraisal, or perhaps even a partner or child telling you what they thought of you. How did it make you feel? What were the ingredients that made it especially good or especially awful?

Themes: emotions & feelings | non-verbal communication

Emotions & Feelings

Emotions and feelings are central to communication. The social psychologist Arlie Hochschild (1983) argues that for some professions, using feelings is actually part of the job which they are paid to do. So an ever-increasing number of workers, from flight attendants to social workers, are paid to smile, while at the same time disguising any feelings they may have of, for example, irritability or tiredness. Hochschild calls this 'emotional labour'. She makes a strong plea for naming our feelings; for getting in touch with the emotions and feelings which we suppress in our working lives, and listening to the cues in our bodies about how we are feeling. Only then will we be able to function authentically in our dealings with others.

In western societies, concepts of emotional self have commonly been gendered. So women are routinely expected to feel and express emotions more than men; men are seen as more cool, more logical and perhaps even stunted in their emotional lives. These are, of course, stereotypes of which we should be aware. They also, however, can lead us to behave in certain ways; women are 'allowed' to be 'more in touch with their feelings'.

People from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds may also express their emotions in different ways. So we might expect an Italian person to be demonstrative and flamboyant; likewise someone who has grown up in mainland China or rural Scotland may be expected to present themselves in a much more cautious, reserved way. But again, these stereotypes can be misleading, and it is important to keep as open a mind as we can on what facial expressions and body movements may be telling us.

Non-verbal communication

To unpack what someone's facial expressions and body movements are telling us, we turn to the subject of non-verbal communication. Koprowska (2005) points that differences in non-verbal communication may be:

  • common to most people
  • culturally determined
  • related to impairment or mental state
  • specific to this particular person and their frame of mind now
  • or a consequence of interaction with us

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.

Non-verbal cues are likely to include the following:

  • Facial expression: does Jean look interested, bored, tired?
  • Eye contact: what happens when Nazra is in difficulty in the meeting?
  • Posture & movement: who fidgets and who sits still?
  • Clothing and artefacts: what does style of dress tell us?
  • Orientation: who is turned away, and when?
  • Proximity and the use of touch: how close are they sitting? When might touch be appropriate?

More information on non-verbal communication

Themes: identities & difference | speaking

Identities & difference

We all have a set of identities or 'selves' which we bring to social encounters. We make choices (consciously and unconsciously) to 'play' up one identity over another at different times and in different situations. And the selves which we are able to use are affected by the selves of the other/s in a social situation (Reinharz,1997).

Drawing on Reinharz's ideas, Jean brings different selves to her encounter with Nazra. Although it is the 'practice teacher based self' which Jean will wish to put to the fore in her meeting with Nazra, the other bits of herself are still there, and will impact on the communication throughout:

  • Her practice teacher based self (being a practice teacher, being a listener etc)
  • Her brought self (being a mother, soon to be a grandmother, being in her 50s, being white, being a socialist etc)
  • Her situationally created self (being tired, being menopausal, being someone with a large caseload etc)


Think about the selves that you bring to your work with students. Which would you wish to forefront, and which might you wish to tone down a little? And why?

Communication isn't just affected by identities. It is also affected by difference - for example, by age, ethnicity/'race', culture. One of the things which we do all the time is to work from stereotypes or 'typifications' - this is explored in Berger and Luckman's classic study of the social construction of reality. When we meet someone for the first time, we make up our minds about them within the first 15 seconds, on the basis of their age, gender, accent, hairstyle, clothing etc etc. And having decided who they are, we then make up whole stories about who we think they are, and how they will behave. So we think we know how 'young people' will act; we can predict how a 'working-class person from urban Scotland' might feel in a given situation. But can we?

This is important in thinking about our communication with students (and, of course, with service users). This is not to suggest that we are prejudiced or discriminatory in any kind of conscious way; instead, we need to acknowledge that this is something about human behaviour which goes on all the time.


Look at the photographs below of 'Nazra', 'Jean' and 'Paul'; then, being honest with yourself, make notes about aspects of their biography that you imagine. When you have completed this print the page and check your notes against our notes about the real 'selves'.

NazraNazra is from a middle-class, educated background. When she was an undergraduate student, she made use of student counselling services to help her to cope with extreme anxiety and unhappiness about her course.

PaulPaul grew up in a lower middle-class family where maintaining appearances was all important. His upbringing was characterised by secrets; it is difficult for him to trust enough to let people know what he really thinks and feels about things. But he has been working with other service users in hospital to begin to see his problems as societal, not just individual.

JeanJean is from a working-class background. There was no expectation that she would stay on at school or go to university. When she was doing her Access course, she discovered for the first time that she has dyslexic difficulties. Jean is caring for her elderly mother who lives nearby and is beginning to get forgetful. She has recently had extensive contact with adult services to discuss her mother's care.

This exercise raises important issues about power and difference. Whilst Jean may have power over Nazra based on age, experience and ethnicity, Nazra may experience class-related power over Jean. And all three people have experienced (or are currently experiencing) being users of services. So we can get it badly wrong if we act on our assumptions in an unthinking way.

Jean and Nazra will have lots of pre-existing ideas about each other which may be changed and challenged as the practice learning develops. It will be important that Jean, as the practice teacher, checks out her own assumptions about Nazra and is not afraid to ask her to explain aspects her own background and culture if this is having an impact on her learning or practice.

It will also be helpful if Nazra gains confidence so that she can ask questions of Jean in the same way. And it will be good for Paul to be able to confront both Nazra and Jean as a person of equal standing. His experience with other service users may encourage him to do this.


There are different kinds of speaking, just as there are different kinds of writing. Thompson (2003: 84-85) calls these 'speech genres'. He suggests that these may include:

  • Formal interviews (e.g. for a job)
  • Highly ritualized greetings (e.g. about the weather)
  • Transactions (e.g. ordering a round of drinks in a pub)
  • Tutorials
  • Arguments
  • Chat-up lines
  • General social chit-chat

Each speech genre has its own style or 'rules' and its own forms of language - as we have a social encounter with another person or persons, we may find ourselves moving in and out of different forms and conventions. So when Jean speaks with Nazra, the genre used is probably closest to what Thompson identifies as a tutorial - it is a formal conversation, but probably less formal than a job interview. It may have aspects which are more informal - most likely at the beginning and end of the meeting - and there may be an element of transaction (contract making) too.

More information on speaking


Spend 10 minutes observing people speaking to each other and list your observations.

Themes: listening | special communication needs


Speaking & listening are deeply interrelated - like steps in a dance - and the non-verbal aspects of communication accompany both sets of steps in the dance. Gerard Egan (1986) coined the term 'active listening' to refer to the fact that listening is not just a passive thing - something which just happens. Instead, it is something (like speaking) that we need to pay attention to and work at. He argues that there are four listening skills in communication:

  • listening to the words
  • listening to the non-verbal cues
  • listening to the 'sour notes', that is the contradictions that can occur between the message in the words and the message in the non-verbal. For example, if Nazra had said 'I feel terrible' but smiled at the same time
  • listening to the wider context - this refers to having a broader understanding of the situation - for example, Jean was aware that Nazra may have had a different socialisation from herself so she could not assume the same learned behaviour in terms of communication - she had to explore this.

The term 'active' implies attending closely, observing consciously and interpreting our observations using knowledge. Jean states at one point 'I can see you are thinking hard' - she is observing & interpreting Nazra's silence, stillness and frown to mean 'thinking'. Then by stating this aloud, she gave Nazra a chance to confirm or deny this. We cannot 'know' someone else's internal world, but like detectives we search for clues and attach meaning to these clues. However, we can be wrong. Perhaps Jean could have said 'you are silent, still and frowning, does this mean you are thinking?' This would have given Nazra more opportunity to respond openly - she might have said 'no, it's more that I am confused about what you asked me'. The more differences there are, the more likelihood there is of making mistakes in interpretation.

The four listening skills are not enough on their own for good communication - another key element here is empathy. For Nazra to feel safe in supervision with Jean, she needs to feel Jean understands her. Nazra has had a difficult experience, she's worried she's not up to the work or that Jean will think this, and so it is important that Nazra's feelings are heard by Jean (even when they are not expressed directly by her). Jean has to be able to enter Nazra's world (through imagination) to feel what it is like in all Nazra's 'selves', to understand what Nazra's might be feeling and thinking, and to convey this understanding back to her. Shulman (1984) suggests that there are three elements in empathy:

  • reaching for feelings
  • displaying understanding of the other's feelings
  • putting the other's feelings into words


Look back at the scenario between Jean & Nazra, list specific words and phrases Jean has used which you think conveys empathy for Nazra. Do you think there is evidence that Jean has used Shulman's elements of empathy? How would you have conveyed empathy towards Nazra?

More information about listening

To understand listening, we also have to know something about this use of silence. Silence is important in direct practice with service users and in supervision situations. In writing about direct practice with service users, Kadushin (1990) notes that inexperience can lead to a tendency to 'feel uncomfortable with silences and to terminate them prematurely'. Within a supervision session, there might be different meanings of silence. Drawing on Kadushin's work, these could be:

  • have said enough on this topic
  • need time to think (this was Jean's interpretation of Nazra's silence)
  • have remembered something and withdrawn
  • have shared highly emotional material and need time to reflect and deal with it
  • be feeling angry
  • be engaging in resistance or self-protection
  • not saying something which would be very anxiety-provoking

It is important, then, for the practice teacher/educator within a supervision setting to be aware that emotional processes could be more present in silences than cognitive ones. It is also important that the practice teacher/educator is able to assist the student/learner to understand and make constructive use of silence in direct practice.


Take a few minutes to think about what your own feelings about the 'use of silence'. Are you comfortable/experienced in this area? Is it an area you need to develop more for yourself?

Special communication needs

We now turn to the question of special communication needs. In our scenario, neither Nazra nor Jean had any additional barriers to communicating with each other which needed to be considered. But there are a number of situations which might have changed this. For example:,

  • If English was not the first language of either person
  • If either Nazra or Jean has a hearing or visual impairment
  • If either person had learning disabilities (this would, however, be unlikely in this situation)
  • If either person was a child (not in this scenario)
  • If either Nazra or Jean has dyslexia (Jean's dyslexia may impact on verbal and written communication, for example, she may need longer to prepare her assessment report on Nazra, and she may need to make use of a proof-reader)

Koprawska (2005) suggests that there are some skills which are worth considering in cases where someone's first language is not English. These include:

  • Avoid complex grammar and ambiguous or colloquial terms
  • Be imaginative in describing words or concepts that aren't understood
  • Draw pictures, use maps, magazines etc
  • Check out the person's understanding and ensure that decisions are not arrived at without their full involvement

Similarly, in reviewing the literature, she offers some hints about communicating with someone who is deaf. She reminds us that while deaf people cannot learn to hear, we can all learn to sign. Messages include:

  • Respect deafness as a difference, just like gender, sexual orientation etc
  • Respect BSL (British Sign Language) as a full and complex language
  • Be creative with paper and pens, gesture and drawing
  • Be patient
  • Allow more time for meetings
  • Meet in uncluttered environments with few visual distractions
  • Speak more slowly
  • Form words more clearly
  • Don't turn away or cover your mouth while talking
  • If you don't understand, ask
  • Use interpreters, especially for critical meetings
  • Communicate by letter, FAX or email in preference to phone
  • Learn BSL

Finally, Koprawska (2005) offers suggestions on communicating with people who have a visual impairment. These are as follows:

  • Ask whether the person sees better in daylight or indoors, at dusk or in the dark
  • Sit in the light - facial expressions may be visible
  • Use different coloured paper depending on what the person finds easier to read
  • Use large print or Braille
  • Make use of aural as well as visual clues - so, for example, say 'hello' as well as smiling in greeting
  • Watch for non-verbal cues which suggest that the person is wanting to speak, for example, if they lean forward
  • Arrange meetings in places which are familiar

Themes: written communication | communication in group settings

Written communication

The example of written communication which we have used in this module is an extract from a reflective diary. Reflective diaries (also called learning logs or journals) are often used in practice teaching to encourage students to reflect on their experiences and their feelings. Sometimes, practice teachers recommend that these diaries are kept private - it is then up to students to choose what material they wish to share with their practice teachers. Mostly, however, reflective diaries are seen as tools for supervision as well as for reflection, and students regularly hand these in before meeting their practice teachers.

Nazra's diary entry is not a good example of a reflective piece. It is mainly concerned with her feelings of being out of her depth, and there is very little analysis here, or even reflection on what she has learned from the situation. One helpful way forward might be to ask Nazra to look at her extract again, identifying what she needs to learn to be able to proceed with Paul.

Forms of written communication which are in common usage in practice learning include:

  • Agency records
  • Agency reports
  • Academic assignments/practice studies/practice reports
  • Working agreements/learning agreements
  • Supervision notes
  • Process recordings
  • Critical incident analysis

Whatever the writing task, students should be encouraged to write as clearly as possible, avoiding jargon, and attending to the question of who the writing is for. An Open University textbook on independent learning recommends that students should always evaluate their written work before it is completed. They must ask themselves:

  • What were my purposes in writing this?
  • How well have I achieved them?
  • How would I change what I researched, planned and wrote if I repeated the exercise?
  • Has working on this led to any ideas or questions that I might follow up? (adapted from Marshall & Rowland 1998: 178).

More information about written communication

Communication in group settings

Supervision does not, of course, always happen in a one-to-one context. There are likely to be a range of people involved in assessing a student's work, including a daily supervisor, colleagues, the university, and service users. This means that there will be times when communication has to happen in a group setting, and then all the areas which we have already discussed will be multiplied by the number of people in the interaction.

There is also another issue, however, and that is the way that groups operate to influence the thoughts, feelings and actions of other group members. For more on this, see Douglas (2000). This means that the communication which takes place in groups requires further exploration.