Comment: Professional language – obstructing social workers engagement with clients

“Professional language” can obstruct social workers’ engagement with clients, and vice versa, writes Nigel Leaney

What’s the worst thing you can accuse a fellow practitioner of? Outside of incest and Morris dancing, being unprofessional probably ranks somewhere in the top 10. Professionalism means belonging to an elite club with strict codes of behaviour, specialised knowledge and highly valued skills. It means being “the expert”.

Professionalism is more than just job security. It is a type of security born out of a desire not to betray your own vulnerability to others – least of all those who are exposing their vulnerability to you. Drop the mask and you’re out of the club. We sell our roles, our professionalism to others in a work sphere where market forces prevail.

We possess skills. They are all there in our skills profiles. Verbs – the “doing words” from our schooldays – have become nouns that we can possess. Being unable to do something has become “having a problem” or, even worse, “taking ownership” of it. To want something becomes “having an unmet need”. Feelings have been transformed into possessions. Both client and professional become programmable automatons – needs, problems, skills can be slotted in and out like a computer.

Post-structuralists have argued that language carries no reality in itself. There is a distinction between language and real experience. Language can misrepresent the truth. Professionals may create concepts to conform to their own subjective vision of the world. Mental illness anyone?

Professionalism has a language, approved and accredited, that becomes the dominant view. The language is already “authorised” – there are the words of the professional, there to be consumed by the non-professional, the service user.

Yet, other than their own, it is the personal qualities of the professional that holds the greatest chances of positive change in the client: intuition, trust and empathy. These can’t be ticked off on a long list of skills acquisitions. People can’t be trained up to their possession.

In a society where warmth and true human regard toward each other are in short supply, it is often the professional carer who is left to fill the gap. Carl Jung was one of the first to acknowledge that love is probably the most important healing force of them all. But just try getting a certificate in it…

Nigel Leaney manages a mental health residential service

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