In support of the university’s efforts to nurture able communicators amongst our students, this bumper issue features
articles on Developing Our Students’ Communication Skills. It includes introductions to upcoming initiatives by
CDTL and the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC) to enhance our students’ ability to communicate
effectively, and also features contributions from colleagues throughout NUS as well as from the industry, in which they
will share communication skills courses or collaborations they are currently running in their respective domains and
the challenges they face in helping their students develop these core skills.
This article discusses the core module SW2105 “Relationship Skills and Social Work”, a practice module which is a prerequisite for all social work major students before they can register for their first field placement. Two thirds of this module is devoted to training students on core interpersonal skills, namely ‘active listening’, ‘non-verbal communication’, ‘empathy’, ‘paraphrasing’ and ‘probing’. Essentially, students learn skills in engaging clients. The remaining one third covers ‘awareness of diversity’. The focus of this paper centres only on the teaching and learning of active listening.
Listening is not merely a skill; it lays the foundation not only for helping relationships but for all relationships. Full listening means listening actively, listening accurately and listening for meaning (Egan, 2010). Carl Rogers (1980, cited in Egan) passionately called it empathic listening, i.e. being with and understanding one’s clients and their world. To listen actively and empathically, one has to put aside one’s own concerns in order to be fully with the client.
In this sense, active listening is hard work. Most first and second year social work students are, however, unaware of their tendencies to succumb to passive and distorted listening. Egan (2010) attributes the causes of distorted listening to: filtered listening, evaluative listening, stereotype-based listening, fact-finding listening and sympathetic listening. The culture and values we are socialised into formed filters in the way we receive information. These tendencies for distortions are ingrained in us and operate almost automatically when we interact with people. In training social work students to listen actively and empathically, it is not possible to eradicate all these obstacles to active listening. Instead, bringing these unhelpful habits to the conscious level is the first step. Awareness is the basis of choice; without awareness, it will be impossible for us to consider how our habitual reactions hinder us from being with our clients, let alone understanding them.
To aid students in identifying their habitual and negative mental activities of labelling and judging, a structured checklist entitled the “Bad Habit Tracking Exercise” (hereafter known as BHTE) was given to students. This was modified from a web-based resource (http://www.leadershipletters.com/2003/10/17/barriers-to-listening-1/), and has five categories of ‘bad habits’ comprising 28 items collated into a six-day-week checklist. Students were asked to be mindful and observe themselves in their daily interactions, with particular attention paid to listening to others. They have to check against the list at the end of the day to see what ‘bad habits’ they had committed that day while listening to their friends or family. On the reverse side of the checklist were six spaces for short daily reflections (about 5 lines each day). Students worked on this BHTE on alternate weeks (the third, fifth and seventh week of the semester). The design rationale behind asking students to work on the exercise during alternate weeks rather than every week was based on research findings indicating that spaced practice generally promotes longer retention than massed practice (Demster, 1990).
Three BHTEs conducted over five weeks were analysed. Of the 53 students taking SW2105, 45 sets of the BHTE were collected for analysis. The checklist of frequencies of occurrence of ‘bad habits’ completed by students (45 students x 3 weeks = 135) over five weeks were analysed by Microsoft Excel. Qualitative analysis of the short individual written reflections was performed by the careful reading and coding of all journal entries (135 individual reflections x 6 entries per week = 810).