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Introducing social work: a starter kit
Introducing social work: a starter kit

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11 Social work communication with a family group

Working with a family group can make challenging demands on social workers’ communication skills. Sitting down with several family members at the same time involves multiple interactions, adding many layers of complexity to the use of empathic listening and responding, and it is not unusual for social workers to find themselves confronted by different or opposing views within a family group. Families are complex, and effective communication incorporates having an appreciation of diverse family forms and relationships. In the next activity, you will see how an experienced social worker handles a situation where she is required to make an assessment visit to a family, following a referral from a school. The school has expressed concerns about a teenage girl’s behaviour, which may be putting her at risk.

The video you are about to watch is the recording of an unscripted and unrehearsed simulation, in which a real social worker, Victoria Cavalino, briefed only by basic written initial-referral information produced for the simulation task, conducts a family interview. The family members are played by actors. Victoria did not know, had not met, nor had she had any communication with the actors before the moment the actual recording commenced. In addition, the actors had not rehearsed or shared among themselves how they might respond or react in the interview, and the actors were only provided with a very basic outline of their individual storylines in advance. Much of the information brought into the interview by Victoria was genuine news to the actors, only being revealed for the first time during the recording. The interview was filmed in one ‘take’ with none of the dialogue repeated or rephrased. So, in this video, all of the reactions and responses are authentic and captured for the recording in real-time using multiple cameras.

Note: In this course, this activity is not addressing in detail the numerous elements relating to child protection practice and the legal issues raised by the story. Therefore, try to keep your focus primarily on the interactions and on the communication between the participants in the interview, remembering, of course, that the direction and the quality of the communication are being influenced directly by the facts and the content of the story as it unfolds.

Activity 3 Working with families

Part 1 Ellie and her family

Before you watch the video, read the information on Ellie Smith [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   that Victoria received before the simulated meeting with Ellie and her family. Make brief notes about anything that you feel might potentially affect communication in Victoria’s first visit to the family. What might Victoria have been concerned about and what might she have been looking out for, that might be difficult to raise or to talk about?

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After providing the referral information to Victoria, she was asked to write down her initial thoughts before going into the video recording of the interview with the family in the simulated meeting. Read Victoria’s initial thoughts. You may be interested to compare this with your own ideas.

Part 2 Victoria’s interview with Ellie and her family

Now watch the video below and make notes about what Victoria, the social worker, says and does to manage the meeting and communicate with the family. Remind yourself of what you have learned so far about the importance of demonstrating empathy and respect, initial contacts, and relationship-building.

The following prompts may help you:

  • How does Victoria start the meeting and how do family members respond?
  • What does Victoria do to try and engage each family member? How successful is this?
  • What does she do when different perspectives and tensions surface? What is the result of this?
  • How does she respond to Greg’s behaviour and is this successful?
  • How does Victoria enable Ellie to express her perspective?
  • How does Victoria bring the interview to a conclusion?
  • The video is quite powerful: what were your own emotions while watching it?
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Victoria seems to show empathy, skill and sensitivity in handling this challenging interview. Even though it was simulated, Victoria commented that it was realistic (except that she had to conduct the interview in a much shorter period than usual).

Part 3 Victoria’s reflections on the experience

Now listen to the audio below, in which Victoria reflects on what she was trying to achieve, on her performance in the interview, including the decisions she made about risk during the interview, and about how she might have wanted to work with the family in future were this a real family. Victoria refers to one of the theories that have influenced her practice: systemic family therapy, and in her preparation notes, Victoria mentions the concept of family scripts which is a concept used in the family therapy approach. These are underlying messages and expectations affecting how a child or adult thinks about themselves. Although Victoria does not mention an approach called solution-focused theory, she seems to use some of its techniques – for example, in the scaling questions, which provide a powerful insight into the self-perceived seriousness or intensity on an imaginary numerical scale of 1–10, of individual family members’ feelings about specific issues raised in the interview.

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