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Communicate effectively in a community services setting

Communicate effectively in a community services setting


Develop, review and revise personal skills in communication as an ongoing priority to address organisation standards
Using language to build positive relationships
Exercise caution in communicating personal information by oral and written means to ensure confidentiality of client and staff matters
Follow written notices and instructions
Recognise individual and cultural differences and make any adjustments needed to facilitate the achievement of identified outcomes
Workplace culture
Conduct interpersonal communication with clients and colleagues in a manner that enhances a client-centred approach consistent with organisation standards
Workplace conflict


Develop, review and revise personal skills in communication as an ongoing priority to address organisation standards

The word communicate is often used in conversation, for example, ‘She or he is a great communicator’ or ‘We just can’t communicate’. When you hear this, do you wonder what people mean? After all, it’s impossible not to communicate and we communicate all the time. Usually, when we talk about someone being a ‘good communicator’, we mean they have good communication skills and use them effectively. When people say they are ‘not communicating’, they usually mean they are not communicating effectively (not getting the right message across) or are not feeling comfortable about their interaction with someone.

The word communication can be broadly defined as the sending or receiving of messages containing meaning. The message usually contains thoughts, ideas, opinions, feelings and information. Communication can be:

Interpersonal refers to an interaction between two people or between people in a small group.

We can then join these two definitions together and define interpersonal communication as being verbal and/or non-verbal interaction between two people or in a small group, that involves sending and receiving messages with meaning.

Good communication skills are a bit like physical exercise. Even the most unfit among us can improve our physical abilities with some learning and practice. People with effective communication skills tend to do well in life—that is, in both employment and in relationships. Good communication skills don’t just happen and effective communicators are aware of the skills they use and work at improving those skills; they work at becoming fitter communicators.

Verbal communication involves all the messages that are sent using words.

Non-verbal communication refers to all those messages that are not expressed in words. Non-verbal communication is sometimes called ‘body language’. Sign language is also an example of non-verbal communication.

Communicating verbally (with words) is important when we are trying to give someone information, for example, our address. We call the verbal part of a message the content. The content of a message usually relates to our thoughts and ideas about a particular issue, or it might refer to the information we provide to someone. Words, however, only convey part of the message. If we want to assess how someone feels about what they are saying we look to the non-verbal cues such as the tone of the voice. It is often the ability to read non-verbal cues accurately and confidently that makes or breaks an interpersonal communication.

Drawing of five faces each showing a different emotion

Who would you rather deal with?

You probably chose figure d. You did this because you made a decision by considering non-verbal communication (in this case, the open smile) or body language. Studies have shown that approximately 75% of our message is non-verbal so we must be as careful of our body language as of the words that we use.

Barriers to effective communication

We all communicate on a daily basis, often with lots of different people and in different situations. The amount of communicating we do and the fact that we do it with lots of different people can make communication complicated and many of us create barriers in interpersonal communications.

We may wrongly believe that communication is easy, so when we come across problems in communication we give up or blame the other person. This is because we don’t know the nature of the problem and how to deal with it.

A common barrier to effective communication is when someone starts to tell a story and the listener jumps in and starts talking about when a similar thing happened to them or they change the subject totally. This is very frustrating for the person wanting to share and a great way to kill a meaningful conversation and, if it keeps happening, a good friendship.

Another great barrier to effective communication is when the listener tries to solve the talker’s problems. This is usually done from a place of caring and concern, but as most people just want someone to listen to them, it can prevent them from sharing what they want to. Also, besides being disrespectful (most people have the skills and insight to solve their own problems), we tend to give advice before the other person has finished telling us their problem. Again, we are not listening to what someone is saying!


Showing that we are genuinely interested in a person and their story is, the first step in communicating effectively in our industry.

The way to show we are attending to what someone is telling us is to use our non-verbal behaviour appropriately. We need to show people that we are physically and emotionally prepared to listen to them.

How to show someone you’re listening

Use eye contact in a culturally appropriate way. In Australian culture, eye contact is perhaps the most powerful way of demonstrating that we are listening and interested in what someone is saying. To facilitate good eye contact, you should make sure you are sitting on similar chairs that help you to be at the same eye level as your client. However, you should be aware of different cultural protocols and use eye contact appropriately—as different cultures have different values attached to eye contact. For example, in all western cultures it is usually considered appropriate to look someone in the eye when you are speaking to them. People can even be viewed as dishonest if they don’t look you in the eye. This is not the same for all cultures. In some cultures, it is thought a mark of respect to look down or away if you are speaking to someone in authority, for example in Aboriginal cultures. When listening to someone make sure that you use the right amount of eye contact, taking into account their culture and their understanding of your culture.

Using questions

Another way of letting someone know we are listening to them is to ask them questions. By asking questions we can clarify what they are saying and find out more about their story.

Tips for asking questions

Types of questions

There are two broad types of questions: open and closed.

Open questions

Open questions encourage the exploration of thoughts and feelings as they ask the talker to describe something in their own words. Open questions are great to use when you want the other person to expand on the topic or issue they are talking about.

Open questions are useful to find out about a problem, for example, ‘What seems to be the problem?’

Closed questions

Closed questions usually lead to a specific answer and often narrow down communications. They usually begin with:

Is … ?

Are … ?

Have … ?

Has … ?

Do … ?

Did … ?

Does … ?

Can … ?

They require either a yes or no answer or a short factual comment. Closed questions don’t encourage clients to talk further. They are useful, however, if you want a specific answer, eg, ‘Do you need these by Wednesday?’

The use of closed questions in a directive way to ‘sell’ a product or a course of action (eg, ‘Would you like to pay by cheque or credit card ?’) is a forced choice question designed to close a sale and is not appropriate in a clinical environment.

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Using language to build positive relationships

Words are a powerful tool. Using the right words can help you to build strong, long-lasting client relationships. Inclusive language uses words such as ‘we’ and ‘our’ to identify you and the client, or the organisation and the client as having the same goals or objectives. Remember too that using a person’s name is an important part of building positive relationships.


One easy way to improve your communication skills is to make sure your voice sounds interesting when you are speaking. Some people have developed the habit of talking in such a way that their voices sound flat. They put very little expression into their speech and tend to sound unhappy even if they’re not. You will find it helpful if you can be cheerful and positive. If you put your personality into your voice it can become a wonderful tool and very effective.

Being positive in your choice of phrases can have an enormous effect on communication with another person. Look at the examples below to see what a difference being positive can make to the meaning. Try to imagine how the person listening feels.

To change a negative sentence into a positive one:
Negative Change to positive

The supervisor won’t be able to speak with you until 3 pm.

The supervisor will be available to speak with you after 3 pm.

There is no chance of an appointment with the supervisor Monday.

The first available appointment with the supervisor is next Monday.

There are some toys in that corner that your children can play with.

Children are not allowed to walk around behind the counter!

Expressing empathy

Empathy is sensing another’s feelings and attitudes as if we are experiencing them ourselves. It is our willingness to enter into another’s world and be able to communicate to that person our sensitivity to them.

Simply asking if a client found parking easily shows some empathy for their situation. Create empathy by:

Remember that it is easy to feel empathy for someone with a similar world view. The challenge is to feel empathy when someone thinks in a very different way.

Some key communication skills with workplace communication:

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Exercise caution in communicating personal information by oral and written means to ensure confidentiality of client and staff matters

Patient confidentiality

Go to Essential knowledge and revise the topic Confidentiality

Listening for specific information

You need to listen carefully when you are given instructions at work. One way to improve your listening skills is to listen for specific information. Make sure you know:

Giving feedback

As listeners we need to support the speaker by giving positive feedback. If the speaker is talking to us face-to-face we should look interested, lean forward and give spoken feedback such as “mmm” and “right” to show that we are listening. If we are listening on the telephone we still need to give verbal feedback to show that we are actively listening.

Activity 1

Decide whether you agree, disagree or are not sure about the following statements.


Asking questions

It is important to know how to ask questions. Even if you think you have understood everything it is still a good idea to check that you have understood correctly. Repeat what you think you heard and check that this is correct.

What about when you didn’t understand? The questions you ask are important. Your supervisor may be annoyed if they finish speaking and you just say: ‘What?’ ‘Huh?’ ‘I didn’t get any of that.’

They might think you haven’t been listening to anything. Try to ask questions that show which part you did understand and which part you didn’t understand. For example: ‘Can you explain again please’

Taking notes

Some people find that it assists them to remember details of what a speaker has said if they write down a few notes as they listen. Others prefer to simply listen and to memorise what they hear. It is important that you try each method and decide what best suits you.

Understanding spoken procedures

To work effectively we need to know how things should be done. In today’s workplace workers often need to learn new procedures. For example, they may need to learn about:

When you receive any instructions you should have been clearly able to understand:

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Follow written notices and instructions

In most workplaces we need to read some notices and instructions. The information that they give us can be important for carrying out our job. We need to develop the skills to read the written notices and instructions that are relevant to us. We also need the skills to ask for assistance if we do not understand what we are reading.

You will need to read written notices and instructions in your workplace. Some examples of written texts you may see in your workplace are:

Reading skills

We can all improve our reading skills. For example, we can ask ourselves two questions as we start to read a new text:

  1. Who is this for?
  2. What is it about?

This will help us to predict some of the words in the text. We can answer these questions by:

Reading instructions/procedures

Instructions tell us what to do and often give the order that we should do these things. Instructions can be found:

It can help to understand and to remember instructions by writing notes in our own words.

Reading notices

Notices usually give us information about such things as:

Notices can include instructions.

When reading notices we should remember our reading skills. First we should look at the heading and the key words and think about…

  1. Who is this for?
  2. What is it about?

This will help us to predict what words will be in the notice and will help us to understand what we are reading.

Taking messages

Messages are important and you must take each one accurately. When you are taking down a message, make sure you are not distracted by anything else happening around you. You must concentrate on the caller.

The message should contain the following information:

Providing helpful information

You may often be required to provide information to clients. For example, you may be required to give directions to a patient to go to admissions. Or you may need to go over instructions with a customer on the processing of their equipment.

You may need to gather this information yourself if there is no up-to-date reference material available. No matter what you have to do to locate the information, you will need that knowledge to provide your customers with quality service.

Sometimes, when you first commence work in your department and clients may ask you many questions for which you do not have an answer. The most helpful thing to do in this situation is to refer them to the person who has the knowledge and expertise to assist. Don’t waste the customers/patients time by trying to handle the questions yourself. However, you can assist the client by seeking out the right person for them and handing them on.

It is important to keep an organised record of regulations, products, forms and procedures that will be relevant to your work. You may find it convenient to keep this in a file or folder in alphabetic order so that you can access the information as needed.

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Recognise individual and cultural differences and make any adjustments needed to facilitate the achievement of identified outcomes

What is culture?

These days, the term ‘culture’ is closely related to the term ‘community’. Culture includes the values and common behaviour of a group. Culture is what defines or describes one community in contrast to what defines or describes other communities.

For example you may have heard people say things like:

Whether or not you agree with such statements, you understand what they mean.

Sometimes people equate ‘culture’ with ethnic and/or religious background. While these elements are important in people’s identity, so are many other elements. Elements include ethnic background, age, and sexual preference.

Being part of one culture doesn’t stop you from being part of another. Someone could be part of both skateboarding and surfing subcultures. Someone whose mother is Aboriginal and whose father is Greek might relate to both the Aboriginal community and culture and the Greek community and culture. Some people in such situations might feel a stronger affiliation with one culture than another.

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Workplace culture

These days, all workplace positions include communication roles, even if they are only part of someone’s job description.

The way people communicate at work will depend on many different things, including:

Each workplace has its own culture, values and standards of behaviour that are considered normal and appropriate. Sometimes these things are formal. They might be structured into a work policy or mission statement. At other times they are informal norms and expectations.

Some common elements of workplace cultures are:

The importance of attitude

Not surprisingly, a positive, respectful attitude is one of the most helpful aids to communication. If we genuinely have good will and respect toward someone, we are much more likely to find appropriate and effective strategies for communicating with them. Respect and attitude are precursors for good listening – and everyone wants to be listened to.

Respect and a positive attitude are important factors in communicating with everybody – those from our own culture/s and those from other cultures.

Activity 2




Misunderstandings can occur easily. They are even more likely when we converse with someone whose first language and culture are different to ours. In such cases we need to be open-minded and patient. And we may need to clarify things more often to ensure we are accurately receiving the message.

What strategies might work to avoid or overcome such misunderstandings? Try:

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Conduct interpersonal communication with clients and colleagues in a manner that enhances a client-centred approach consistent with organisation standards

The ability to quickly or carefully consider a situation so that you can work out what action to take, and the probable consequences of your action, is useful because, you may often be in this situation. Not all situations requiring your attention are urgent, but many require you to be capable of establishing the level of urgency while remaining calm and able to consider the needs of your client.

Your attitude towards clients and how you deal with their situation are important parts of your role. It is important to maintain a calm approach at all times and to show sympathy to those who are in need of support.

Experience shows that listening to people rather than telling them what to do is the best approach. For example, even if a client has made a mistake about some lost equipment, it is important to respond calmly and not in a way that blames them. This way you are more likely to gain their cooperation and the problem can be dealt with more quickly.

It is important that you maintain a professional manner by being courteous and attentive to clients at all times.

By presenting a positive image to all clients, internal as well as external, , you are creating the best possible setting for clear communication to occur. When you communicate clearly with each person you deal with you will give them the attention they feel they deserve. When you communicate clearly with all of them you are actually removing barriers before they appear.

Take appropriate measures to resolve conflict and interpersonal differences in the workplace

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Workplace conflict

Here we will learn about workplace conflict and discuss ways to resolve issues that might otherwise result in two or more people clashing. You will learn how to deal with conflict with colleagues as well as customers.

It is important for the dental assistant to understand and deal with different kinds of conflict so that you can:

Workplace conflict can be defined as a situation of differing ideas or opinions involving patients or staff and resulting in two people clashing.

Conflict with the client

A client can become disgruntled and distressed. Many things can invoke feelings of hostility particularly with an anxious client. For example a long time spent waiting to see the head of the department, particularly if they have not been informed of delays, confusion of accounts.

How can you help?

When a client needs to have an issue resolved remember the following points.


To prevent conflict with a difficult or abusive client try:

Conflict amongst colleagues

When it comes to the way we treat and deal with our colleagues, we should always remember the following which will help to prevent conflict in the workplace.

How can I help?

Conflict resolution skills

To establish good communication skills you will need to express warmth, empathy and respect.

Ideally you should obtain the following specific information from patients to help with maintaining good communication.

Obtain information about patients previous visits:

Successful communication will always help to alleviate patient’s anxieties.

Negotiation techniques

Have a look at the following negotiation techniques.

Negotiation checklist:

Assess the best alternatives

Find out the underlying issue

Actively listen, dialogue is a learning conversation

Be soft on people, hard on problems

Be unconditionally constructive

Strive for mutual respect

Devise solutions, not problems

Use objective criteria that are fair for all.

Problem solving steps

Have a look at the following table containing problem solving steps
Identify the problem

Clearly and succinctly define the problem, sometimes there are several issues rather than just one.

Investigate the problem

Confirm what information is available and identify the source. Consider the information you have, decide what other information is required to adequately address the problem.

Specify the problem

Clarify exactly what you want to achieve.

Generate solutions

Do not allow for judgement or criticism to affect the result.

Implement the best solution

Advise when the solution will be implemented and identify responsible person.

Generate solutions

Do not allow for judgement or criticism to affect the result. Implement the best solution

Advise of when the solution will be implemented and identify responsible person

Monitor and evaluate its effectiveness

Check to make sure that all parties are happy with the resolution, patients will always be impressed with a follow up call to make they are happy with the resolution to a problem.

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