Chair's Blog


The value of talking

It was quite an evening last night in Leicester, with the roar of the crowd coming through the open windows of Room 1.28 in De Montfort University’s Edith Murphy House. Leicester City went on to beat Club Brugge 2-1, while I had a very enjoyable time meeting with the BASW Leicestershire branch.

It was a return for me of sorts, as I worked in Leicester (and Leicestershire) straddling the 90s and 00s, and had been involved with an earlier incarnation of a Leicestershire branch. I knew the new branch chair, Pratiba Mkadmi, back then, so was sorry that she wasn’t able to be there, though had a nice surprise when a former manager of mine arrived. There was a good mix of people, experienced and more recently qualified social workers and, really pleasingly, students from all three years of De Montfort’s social work degree.

In my view, branch activity is one of the most important aspects of BASW, and in a sense this was my subject for the evening, which I’d given the title of ‘Values and Knowledge-Sharing in Social Work’, and which was really about the importance of social workers talking with each other.

I drew on a talk I’d given recently to 400 social workers in Latvia, at a conference jointly organised by their Ministry of Welfare and the Latvian Social Work Society, on social work values in practice. The main idea I tried to convey there was that our values are evident in all that we do, and that the place to look for our values is in our practice. This includes the language we use, which led me to a brief aside about talking about ‘service users’.

I shared a quote from another former Leicestershire manager of mine, Tony Booth who managed the county’s Family Support Team, and who had been one of the previous branch’s guest speakers at an event in summer 2004, provocatively called ‘The Trouble With Social Work’. Tony based his talk on a chapter he’d written on service user participation in children’s social work, which included this comment:

“We have ended up in the paradoxical situation whereby those persons who don’t want a service end up receiving one whilst those who do want a service are denied help”.

This seems to me just as relevant today, if not more so, and I talked about BASW’s current considerations about how to involve service users more in the work of the Association, and how this is harder in the case of involuntary rather than voluntary service users – but just as essential, given how many of our service users have not actually sought our help. Note though how Tony refers to ‘persons’ rather than ‘service users’.

There is a promotional video for the film, I, Daniel Blake, only just over a minute long, which is both moving and challenging with respect to how we describe the people we work with. I can only find it on Facebook, so I think you need to be a Facebook user to view it - - scroll down to 21 October. It’s the one with Jeremy Corbyn in it, among others.

Back to my main theme last night – the importance of talking with each other as social workers, for “knowledge is social”, and it is through talking, asking each other questions and sharing our stories, that we learn and develop our knowledge and skills as social workers.

What do I mean by this? I gave two examples from last weekend – on Saturday I attended an event on social work with refugees (co-organised by BASW London and SWAN), and how much more useful is it to learn about working with refugees and asylum-seekers to go to an event like this and meet with many other social workers, than just reading about it, for example on the internet? Then on Sunday I had a phone conversation with a friend about a philosophy book we have just started reading (Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett). It’s been on my bookshelf for a couple of years, sadly unread, until I found out that my friend was also interested in it – and also hadn’t been able to get going with it. So we decided we would read it together, and have regular conversations about it on the way. Sunday’s was our first such conversation, and my reading of the book has accelerated since, and I’ve been searching out related podcasts too and sharing them with my friend.

Knowledge is social. An earlier time when I began to realise this was when I first tried to use solution-focused practice as a social worker. I had bought a copy of A Brief Guide to Brief Therapy, by Brian Cade and Bill O’Hanlon, and liked the idea of asking about exceptions to problems, rather than just about the problems themselves. It seemed such a simple idea, and one I could have a go at. I was working with a family with two teenage brothers who were always fighting. So I asked them one day whether they could think of a time when they’d almost had a fight but had managed not to. And they could, and told me of such a time. At which point I got stuck, and wished I had the book with me. What did I do now? Maybe I just told them I was pleased to hear it and I hoped they could do more of that. I know I didn’t know how to build a solution-focused conversation from that starting point, asking questions to help the boys talk about how they’d managed this, and what differences it had made, and what their Mum had noticed and so on. I didn’t learn how to do this until I went on a training course a couple of years later.

I couldn’t learn to develop solution-focused skills by reading a book. I had to meet and talk with others to do that.

I was reminded of this when I attended a seminar last year by Niels Christian Barkholt about knowledge-sharing in social work – it was there that I heard this wonderful comment: “knowledge is social”. Niels wrote a guest post for this blog last year, based on that seminar, which you can read here.

Where’s the connection with values in all of this? Well, the other thing I tried to convey in Latvia, and repeated in Leicester last night, is that values tend to be framed as these great concepts, ‘up there’ ­– human rights, social justice, respect, equality – while our practice takes place ‘down here’. How to connect the two? One way, I suggest, is to draw on the idea of knowledge being social, and so to talk with each other. Terry Bamford once wrote that “social workers tend to shy away from thinking about value questions”, but if values are everywhere and affect everything we do, then we must think and talk about them.

We did that last night, as I suggested that joining a branch or turning up at an evening branch meeting says something about a person’s values. So we talked in pairs about why it was that we’d come. What made it important to us as social workers to be at a meeting like this? What did it say about what we give value to? (I like this way of talking, which I’ve learned from narrative therapists, not to talk about our values as things, but about what we give value to, which makes it more of an action on our part). The feedback from these conversations was terrific, and a theme of learning from each other emerged, including experienced social workers from students – and the word that stood out the most in this was passion.

We need to find ways of talking with each other about how our values show up in our practice, and this won’t be easy. So we need to support each other in doing this. It will help if we get more used to talking about social work and about our everyday practice more generally. Because our everyday practice IS social work. Talking about our everyday practice is a way of producing social work knowledge, hence the importance of talking both in deepening our awareness of our social work values and how they inform our practice, and in our development, ownership and use of social work knowledge.

Forming branches and attending branch meetings – large and formal and small and informal – is a good way to do this. How too can we develop ‘knowledge-sharing’ workplaces and teams? How do you already do this? Do you eat your lunch in the company of colleagues, and use that time to talk? Do your team meetings provide space for the discussion of social work issues? How do you prevent hot-desking getting in the way of this sharing?

If you have the chance to work jointly, and hence observe another social worker at work (and how valuable this can be!), you could ask yourself, what values do you see and hear in what they do? Then we need to learn how to talk to each other about each other’s practice, in constructive ways that help us to learn from each other.

Here’s a possible exercise to finish off with, where all you need is a colleague to talk to, and a few minutes available to talk in.

One of you bring to mind a piece of work you’ve done recently – tell your partner about it – briefly! – And about what values of yours showed in this work.

Change roles – now tell your partner about an important value for you as a social worker. Then think of a recent piece of work where this value showed and describe the work – briefly! – And how the value showed through in it.

Let’s put the ‘social’ back into social work – enjoy your talking!


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