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Why do social workers use alienating language?

I really enjoyed the Firstline programme. I liked the opportunity to discuss those deeper issues in social work and take time to reflect. My role as manager to a busy team means that I struggle to do this in my day-to-day job. My head is full each day with tasks, worries and social workers struggling with cases. It is hard to find the time, space or capacity to really think deeply, to challenge myself with research or to contemplate different approaches.

Therefore, a group of fellows including myself got together to discuss how we could keep the Firstline feeling going after the programme had finished. Was there a way of carving out some time and meeting with other fellows to discuss the social work issues of the day or practise a difficult conversation?

I spoke to Bryony from the Fellowship team and we met with her to make a plan. We wanted to be as inclusive as possible and invite anyone from the North West who was interested in attending. I was a little apprehensive as to whether people were interested and if anyone would come along, but inspired by Firstline I was willing to take a risk!

Our first official “forum” took place recently at a cafe in town. With drinks and snacks, eight of us relaxed after work and discussed the use of social work language and the effect this has on children and families. I suggested this topic because recent articles and social media comments have claimed that the language we use as social workers can alienate families. Care leavers in Manchester have also challenged us on certain words we use to describe them, for example “LAC” (looked after child) instead of just child and “contact” to describe time with family members when really “family time” describes it better. Ideally, we want to work with families and not “do to” families. By using language they find derogatory or do not understand, we are doing the opposite.

Using a few articles and thoughts as prompts, we dissected the language we use every day and questioned what it actually means. We examined why we use phrases like “parents are not meeting social and emotional needs” or “levels of risk” instead of describing the actual behaviours involved. Do parents really know what we mean when we say “you need to engage” and would it change the outcome if we said “we need to work together better to find solutions”? Why do social workers use this language and how can we change a culture that is so ingrained?

Although we agreed that doctors and lawyers also use jargon and language that lay people do not understand, it is more important for social workers to speak in a way that includes families. We need to communicate our expectations effectively so that service users have the best chance to demonstrate that they understand and can change. If service users feel alienated by our language and do not understand what we ask of them, this will lead to increased intervention where it is not necessary.

It was a really stimulating discussion and it was easy to lead because everyone had lots to say. Even though it was straight after work I wasn’t at all tired, because I was excited to be talking about something that really matters. I could already see the potential to change my team and the lives of families we work with. It was satisfying to have space to think and consider how to change and how to bring about change.

As managers and tutors, we want to be different and not let the language we use alienate the people we work with. We decided that change starts with us and agreed to start using simple and plain language with our social workers and in our teams. Then we will speak to our workers and have team meetings, challenging them to think about their language with families and how they are communicating to them. We want to change the culture, but it starts with us and hopefully we can expand our sphere of influence over time.

I am excited for our second session, which will be led by another fellow, on dilemmas and difficult conversations. However, we all agreed that we would first return to the social work jargon discussion and keep each other accountable about our language so we can keep our enthusiasm to change going. I am really glad we took the risk and started something. I want to be a leader and I need to keep challenging myself. This was a great way to do this.