Difficult and challenging conversations
One of the key skills as a social worker is dealing with difficult service users. Conflict is very stressful and it has an impact on us and the way we feel about our jobs.
There are times when service users can be aggressive, threatening, disrespectful, or even violent. Some are vexatious, some have personality disorders, some are just bewildered and out manoeuvred by more powerful and articulate people (could be you!) in processes that they don’t understand. And some are just down right dangerous. Many of our service users are people living with trauma, past or present, and often have unhealthy models of conflict resolution.
You can’t necessarily control how service users react but you can control how you respond and that will hugely influence how the interaction proceeds.
How you approach service users is key – being respectful, relationship based, listening and self reflective go a long way.
If you find yourself in a tense confrontation – and you will – these are some helpful ways to respond.
1) Stay calm and be calm. If your body language, posture, tone and pitch of voice stay calm and broadcast that you are calm, it will help de-escalate the situation. Be Zen.
2) Show that you are respectful to the person, avoid language that is judgemental or triggering, and try to be empathic. See link below on relational based social work.
3) Listening is a big de-escalator. Most people get angry when they don’t feel listened to. Show that you are listening to the emotions as well as the arguments. One technique you can use to slow them down and de-escalate is to ask them questions and reflect their answers back. Its harder to stay angry if someone is asking you to explain how they feel, and what they mean. This is more likely to create the space for them to listen to you later. Ask good questions and reflect their answers back.
4) Don’t take it personally – it isn’t.
5) Consider what the anger is giving them. For some it is a mask. Some clients like to create drama around themselves, others use it to distract from the core issues. Sex offenders often create narratives of fabricated injustice around themselves and the anger is a tool of deflection. For some being abusive is just a learned pattern of behaviour and they may not be looking for a solution, or an answer, at least not one that is possible. For many, if not most, it is coming from a feeling of loss of power and control, not understanding the concerns fully, and feeling that somehow their rights are being trampled on.
Taking care of yourself
- Make sure that you are not visiting addresses alone, take a colleague, or in extreme cases the police. Your organisation should have a policy about lone working out of hours, and policies in place for safety in visits. Ensure that your colleagues/manager knows where you are, can contact you and when you are due back. Get them to check in on you by phone during the visit.
- Think about where you are having the visit – can you leave quickly if necessary, is it in front of a hostile audience? Would it be better to invite them into the office?
- Terminate the meeting with a service user if it is becoming too abusive and impose boundaries around acceptable behaviour. This should be worked out with your manager. Don’t be afraid to leave if you feel a home visit is getting out of control.
- Make sure your team manager knows about any aggression, and especially threats. Report any racist or homophobic behaviour to your manager. Your employer has a duty of care to you and should have a policy to address unacceptable behaviour from service users. Discuss this in supervision.
- Acknowledge the feelings that this gives you. Don’t be too macho to acknowledge the impact it is having on you. Social work can be a very macho culture. As a profession we don’t do vulnerability well. Look after yourself and find good colleagues to support you.
Some more resources
Using a relationship based approach to conflict – some really valuable tools and insights:
Social work and conflict webinar: