Communicating with Clients


Copyright © 1998 Caroline Bowen

This was one of the very first articles to appear on this site, back in 1998. Has anything changed? Terminology was the @WeSpeechies topic of the week for May 4-10, 2014.

Read about the @WeSpeechies RoCur handle and Tuesday chats

Speech-language pathology / speech and language therapy (SLP/SLT) is a profession whose knowledge-base comes from medicine, psychology, education and linguistics as well as from our unique body of SLP/SLT research. An effect of having these rich sources to draw upon is that we have technical terms and big words in abundance, and the potential for very complicated explanations indeed!

Technical language is, of course, important to professions like ours. It enables us to define precisely what we are talking about, so facilitating unambiguous communication within our profession, with other professions, and when appropriate, with consumers of our services.

An important rôle for speech-language pathologists is that of clarifying unfamiliar terms, concepts and issues to consumers of our services, and their families - if and when they want such explanations. Conveying such information can be difficult. The information itself may be distressing - it is not an easy thing, for instance, to explain the implications to a parent of childhood apraxia of speech (CAS). The recipient of the information may be distressed, unprepared for answers, or have difficulty understanding or accepting them. The situation in which the information is being transmitted may be less than ideal. And the manner in which the information is conveyed may be problematic: detailed written reports, for example, with no face-to-face verbal explanation, may be too confronting for many clients.

Asking an expert

In thinking about these issues I found it helpful to to consider the following ten questions about asking an expert for specialised information. In posing the questions, I tried to picture myself in a professional's office seeking information about a child's communication disorder.

  1. Have you ever asked an expert a question and then been completely bamboozled by a lengthy reply, riddled with jargon, when all you wanted was a brief and easily-understood explanation?
  2. Have you ever asked an expert a question feeling so anxious about what the response might be that although the answer was in plain language you could not process it adequately?
  3. Have you ever asked an expert a question and then been aware that their answer was so oversimplified for your 'benefit' as to change the essence of the information being 'communicated'?
  4. Have you ever asked an expert a question because you felt that you were expected to ask a question, at the same time feeling unprepared to deal with the response?
  5. Have you ever asked an expert a question and reacted so strongly and negatively to the response that you could not accept any aspect of it?
  6. Have you ever asked an expert a question and walked away, remembering nothing of what was said in response, only to realise weeks or months later that you might have been experiencing a period of denial?
  7. Have you ever asked an expert a question, choosing your words carefully because the child you were asking the question about was present, so that both the question and the answer did not adequately address your concerns?
  8. Have you ever asked an expert a question, in the presence of the child the question was about, and then been shocked and embarrassed when the expert discussed that child in detail while they were still there?
  9. Have you ever asked an expert a question and then been too distracted by, for example, children interrupting, making a noise and wanting attention, to deal with the response?
  10. Have you ever asked an expert a question and been too embarrassed to ask for clarification when you did not understand the answer?

Sharing information

As SLPs/SLTs, many of us have had the unfortunate experience of trying unsuccessfully to explain complex concepts and issues, for clients or carers, without misinforming them by oversimplifying the message. Right from our undergraduate days most of us were made aware of the alienating effect the use of technical jargon can have, especially in the face of requests for easily understood information to pass on to concerned relatives, teachers and others.

For some consumers, the use of correct terminology is a sign that professionals are prepared to share information openly without making patronising value judgements about their capacity to understand, accommodate and 'use' such information appropriately.  Indeed, numerous families (and clients, if they are old enough) prefer to be told the correct name of a disorder, symptom, anatomical feature, assessment procedure or therapy technique.

On the other hand, the last thing many families of children with communication difficulties want to hear when they are attempting to understand and help their child's language development is a torrent of incomprehensible jargon. For a lot of families, this is particularly true in the early stages of diagnosis, and at times when they are anxious and upset. They do want facts, but until they are confidently engaged in a constructive program for their child, most can do without the complications of having to understand the differences between, for example: phonological processing, phonological processes, and phonological awareness, or the astonishing number of SLP/SLT words that seem to start with 'dys'!

We also have to bear in mind that people deal with the information we present in different ways and and different rates. In situations where just one parent brings a child to therapy, so that the other parent gets all the information 'second hand', it is not uncommon for the accompanying parent to reach a degree of acceptance and insight into the child's difficulties in advance of their partner. In such a situation, the parent who actually meets with the clinician may be more prepared to 'trust' the information being conveyed.

Bowen, C. (1998). Communicating with clients. Retrieved from on [insert the date that you retrieved the file here].