A blog by Professor Donald Forrester

This and the next Blog relate to this article.

Since I left social work practice to become an academic, almost 20 years ago, most of my research has been trying to find out what helps children and their families. Sad to say, this is rooted in a sense that I was often not particularly helpful to the people I worked with.

The analysis that this Blog relates to is part of my attempt to understand these issues better. One of the areas I have often explored is the impact of Motivational Interviewing (MI). MI is in many ways simply a description of some key elements of good communication that maximises the likelihood that people will make positive changes in their own lives.

As part of a series of studies we provided an intensive package to support the development of MI skills in social workers. Yet when we compared trained workers with normal practice we saw only a minimal difference in their actual skills and no impact on the outcomes we measured. You can read the findings here.

This raises lots more questions than it answers – research often seems to do that. Perhaps the most important one is: does the way that social workers talk to families make any difference? A simple explanation for why lots of training and supervision made little difference was that the quality of practice does not matter all that much.

However, much of my research has been based on the idea that how social workers talk to people does matter and there is a broad consensus about this within the wider profession too. All social work courses and most social work textbooks have a central place for good communication skills. Yet there is vanishingly little research on whether this is actually true. I have not been able to find any studies showing a link between the quality of practice (as directly observed) and outcomes. When you think about it this is a strange gap in our knowledge about social work.

It is therefore possible that the communication skills of social workers make no difference. After all, there is lots of other stuff happening in and to families. The time people spend with their social worker is very limited. And broader structural factors, or previous experiences or current circumstances must all surely dwarf the impact of the worker’s communication skills? Maybe the way that workers talk to people does not make any difference?

This study is important because it addresses this question. And the good news is – workers with better communication skills produced better outcomes for families than those with less good skills. That is a really important finding. It provides one important justification for focussing on good communication skills.

Of course this is just a single study. And it raises lots of other questions. Just because these links were found in one study, can they be found in others? What other skills might be important? And are there some people or problems for whom social work skills are more important and others for whom they are less so?

You may be reading these questions and think you know the answers. Well, maybe you do. But a word of warning: I have often thought I knew what a study would find and as often as not have been challenged to discover that it is more complicated or just different to the way I thought it was. This is a key contribution that research can make.

In the next blog I unpack the findings a bit more and explore the unexpected pattern of skills that we found to be important.