Active listening is perhaps the idea that I have discussed the least. It is one of a number of features of effective work that can easily be taken for granted. Certainly, when I trained, relatively little attention was paid to active listening unless one happened to benefit from a good practice supervisor. It was conventional to take an interest in what you heard as a worker – process recording was commonly used to try and evidence that, and theoretically could be used to look at the worker’s responses to what they heard. In practice, these records were hardly reviewed and gave little insight into what I provided as an active listener. They were not irrelevant – the truth is that good listening does produce richer material from the client. Good listening provides the facilitative environment that gives clients the confidence to think and explore their experience.
One of the strange features of much social work and probation practice then, and I suspect now, was that much of it took place in private, that is in a confidential space where only client and worker were present. As a result, managers seeking to help staff develop their skills relied on elaborate and relatively ineffective mechanisms such as process recording. Process records that attempted to record all the details of an interview could reveal how much the client was able to share, but they were a very elaborate way of evading the obvious – if you want to know how good a listener a worker is, it is best to watch them at work. It seems to me that of all that might be done to improve social work practice, the most likely to be effective would be to establish a culture in which the norm was for interviews to be observed or conducted in pairs. I had one experience of this in Family Court work and it seemed to me to lead to much better work and with much less wasted time.