Do we talk too much in social work?

Academic Rhian Taylor ponders the importance of silence

By Rhian Taylor

There has been an increasing number of articles and accounts of social care organisations using mindfulness training as a way of supporting social workers and improving resilience.

Yet despite its popularity there is not much academic writing about the use of mindfulness in social work. I can understand why. It’s such a widely used term in popular culture that its meaning has become imprecise.

Unacademic but beneficial

When I bring up mindfulness at the university where I work I immediately feel self-conscious about how ‘unacademic’ and vague I sound. My large stash of meditation books has certainly not made it to public display in my university office.

Yet, during many years working as a practitioner, I know first-hand how beneficial mindfulness was in helping me cope with the demands of practice.

So I was very interested to come across the work of Yuk-Lin Renita Wong, a Professor at York University in Canada, and an article she had written entitled ‘Mindfulness and Critical Reflection in Social Work Education’ (2014).

In it she argues that mindfulness practice can be extremely useful in developing effective ways to critically reflect.

How to deal with emotions

She goes onto say that whilst we often acknowledge the importance of our emotions in social work, there is little in the way of showing you how to actually deal with difficult emotional experiences.

Wong trains students to observe and stay with their emotions in a mindful and non-judgemental way.

She points out that as students “stop their habitual reactions of judgment and preference, they have more internal space to reflect on the structural context of their experience, to hold multiple views, and to act appropriately to bring about change”.

I find this very challenging. Most of us assume that critical reflection has to come through talking.

Discussion vs silence

We value discussion, supervision and reflective groups, but important as these practices are, perhaps we are missing something even more vital to the reflective process – the value of not talking; the importance of silence.

There’s not a lot of silence on university courses or in social work offices.

Yet Professor Wong’s ‘Critical Reflection’ graduate course uses mindful mediation exercises to begin the class and includes a day long silent retreat.

In reading the description of the course I was also struck by the attention to the body as well as the mind. I’ve read a lot of social work books on reflective practice but I don’t remember any that acknowledge the role our bodies have in ensuring our minds are alert, curious, and open to new ideas.

Too critical

A further point I found illuminating was the importance of being non-judgmental about your thoughts and being kind and accepting of yourself.

As a social work supervisor for many years I was often struck by how many excellent social workers were very hard on themselves and their own practice.

Being too critical can be a real issue. It is often very difficult to achieve good outcomes for service users and there can be a sense of impotence and failure in not being able to realise the changes we are working for.

The current pressures of frequent audits, inspection regimes and more focus on performance management make it difficult for even the most conscientious worker to always get it right.

Supervision still patchy

As a supervisor I found that staff would often struggle to recognise their own strengths and were very reliant on their monthly supervision sessions for affirmation that their work was good, and encouragement to look after themselves.

Mindfulness practices develop our awareness of any tendency to harsh self-criticism and learn to become gentler with ourselves.

When surveys still tell us that supervision for some social work staff is often infrequent, and not always reflective, practices which assist in developing our own ability to reflect and recognise our strengths on a daily, rather than monthly,  basis can only help with resilience and effectiveness in the job.

This isn’t about avoiding being challenged. It’s more a question of thinking about how, and in what spaces, challenge is likely to be most effective.

Here I think of my own defensiveness about being wrong, my awareness of how other people respond to my views and my tendency to black and white thinking.

Admitting you may be wrong

I can see that developing an approach to critical reflection which is less about me talking and being right, and more about me really listening – to myself and others, could make me a much more insightful reflector.

As Eileen Munro commented in her book, Effective Child Protection: “The single most important factor in minimising error is to admit that you may be wrong.”

For effective critical reflection we need to create spaces for both talking and silence; where we feel safe to be wrong, and confident to be quiet, and where we can fully grapple with the complexity and demands of social work practice.

Rhian Taylor is a lecturer in social work at the University of Kent.

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