Teaching and learning communication skills in social work education

Practice example 9: Social work skills: A practice handbook (2000) By Pam Trevithick, University of Bristol, published by the Open University Press, Buckingham

This textbook has a section on communication skills in social work. The work is based on lectures taught to social work students at the University of Bristol from 1989-99. The overriding principle of the book focuses on the important relationship between theory and practice. The author argues that there exists a gap in the number of texts specifically addressing social work skills, and that where texts exist these do not draw on theory to inform practice in sufficient detail. One important principle underpinning the book is that where there is a difficulty communicating, it is the task of the professional - in this case the social worker - to address this difficulty.

In addition, the author argues that it is only with a sound theoretical understanding in relation to communication skills that effective, transferable communication skills can be developed. The motivation for this text was to provide a resource for 'bewildered’ students and practitioners.

The book is aimed at both students and practitioners. It is divided into two sections. The first section looks at 'the theoretical underpinnings to practice’, including an overview of psychological theories. This explores looking at the use of theory and research to underpin practice and includes specific terms used in social work, and how to evidence effectiveness in listening, communication and assessment skills.

The second section explores 'how these theoretical concepts relate in practice’, and identifies 50 skills 'used within social work on a regular basis’. These are grouped under the following chapter headings:

The author also states that "other core skills are included, but not described separately. These include communication, interviewing, observation, listening, assessment and decision-making skills”.

This is not a 'workbook’ of exercises. Rather, it describes a particular skill and the kind of social work context in which it might be useful, often referring the reader to other texts. The author frequently uses examples from practice, drawn from her experience as an academic/practitioner. These examples sometimes take the form of a transcribed dialogue (always anonymised) as a way to illustrate the skills described. In relation to her role as an academic, the author used the same format described in the book in her teaching of social work skills, including communication skills. The book analyses interventions on three levels: 'basic’, 'intermediate’ and 'advanced’ level skills. For example, under the general heading entitled 'Basic interviewing skills’, the author breaks these 20 skills into five separate sections. One section, on 'Sticking to the point and probing deeper’, includes a description of 'prompting’ and 'using self-disclosure’ as important communication skills. Or again, the section on questioning covers the use of 'open’ and closed’ questions’, 'what’ and 'circular’ questions, and describes how these skills might be used effectively in different practice settings and with different service user groups.

The author reports that students find it easier to relate skills to particular approaches and theories when they are explicitly broken down in this way, and in the programme she delivers she works from core or basic skills through to advanced skills. While the book does not provide exercises, it illustrates the use of skills through a dialogue format or through the use of practice examples. Its primary aim is to provide a handbook that students and practitioners can refer to easily, and in ways that enable them to reflect on 'what we are doing and why’. It is also intended to be a resource for academics and practice assessors - a text that social workers and students can refer to when something goes wrong, or when something goes well, in order to learn from that experience and to understand why something might have happened in a particular way.

The book has been translated in Spanish and Korean, and is currently being translated into Chinese. It is also on the syllabus of social work courses in Australia, North American universities and West Africa, as well as being used in universities throughout the UK and the Republic of Ireland.


Trevithick, P. (2000). Social work skills: A practice handbook, Buckinghamshire: Open University Press.

Further information available from: Pam Trevithick, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol (www.bristol.ac.uk/sps).