After the Webinar: Are We Speaking the Same Language? Q&A with the Presenters

Webinar presenters Jim Newman, Michelle Hart, and Herb Sinkinson answered a number of your questions after their presentation, Are We Speaking the Same Language? Leveraging Conversational Language to Engage Clients. Here are just a few of her responses.


Audience Question: What is the best place to start looking at for changing the style of writing? 

Michelle Hart: I think you need to start exactly where your clients meet the system. And that may not be in your control. And so it would be where they meet your agency. And so like we did, we started with – we have a statewide uniform set of conditions. And then we took it further in our agency. So all of our paperwork that our clients receive are in the first person. As much as possible, we try to have it be their own words. So where we can we ask them for their input and so that when they have that piece of paper later, it’s meaningful to them. If you can engage with the other parts of the quarter, other agencies you’re working with and do cross-training or in-services to share so that we’re all speaking the same language that’s even better. We try to do that with our course. I can tell you also that building, doing this thing has really increased our rapport with our clients, and accountability, they understand what we’re here to do, and that we’re in a partnership. They often still even show up when they know that they have to deal with a difficult thing such as accountability. So I think it’s a really excellent thing. And it also increases safety because you’ve had that engagement and respect and partnership built.

Jim Newman: I think one other thing to point out is that even if you don’t get your courts to engage with you in this, you can always hand them their traditional conditions. And then you can also rewrite them for the client so that they can have a kind of go-to sheet to help them go through it. We have seen this being done in other parts of the country. So don’t be afraid of the fact that maybe you’ve can’t get full engagement through the court so or wherever it’s coming from. You can still do it with your clients. You’re the one who’s communicating with the client.



Audience Question: The next question is Jim, you’re talking about acronyms. So this question is probably directed towards you. question is what is Danco? D-A-N-C-O mean? 

Jim Newman: Domestic Abuse. But it has to do with domestic abuse. It was part of a no-contact order. In a domestic abuse situation.

Herb Sinkinson: Domestic Abuse No Contact Order



Audience Question: When is it better to open up to the client by asking open-ended questions such as share with me what you’re doing to and then fill in the blank with whatever the question is?

Michelle Hart: I think you can do that from the very beginning because that’s a way to engage them and say that you really want to know their input. And then sometimes it’s okay to sit with the silence and not try to fill that in for them. But then, of course, you don’t want to spend all day just staring at each other. So you may have to redirect it, but I think the sooner you can build that rapport and show that you’re very interested in what they have to say and their experiences and what’s worked with them in the past, and that you’re not going to just create a plan that is meaningless to them to move forward and put conditions on them. There are several ways to get from point A to point B, and you want to engage with them on what works best for them. So open-ended questions, I think are great from the start.

Herb Sinkinson: I agree with what Michelle just said. And I think that it sets a really great tone to start out with, how are you doing? So somebody that’s a new client working with you, if you’re writing to them, or especially if you’re meeting with them in your office, how are you doing? You know, a lot of people have come directly from court to our office. And I have found that when they are asked that, rather than I’m so and so and I’m here to tell you what your conditions are, and you will launch right into something that’s up in your head entirely. You wouldn’t do that if you met somebody, a new colleague, or a new professional person or a student intern or something like that, and you should try to set that kind of open friendly tone with clients. When you get into the specifics, that would be more about, you know, the specific conditions. Okay, this is what this specific condition means, or I would have them repeat back to me. Do you understand what this condition means? Do you understand what that condition means and then get into the specifics. One other thing I wanted to say that I didn’t earlier that I thought up, is that we have a tremendous number of people with English as a second language at best. So it’s not just the folks that were brought up with English that have a difficult time relating, but it’s also the folks that have started out in another country that come to our area now and ever-increasing numbers. Oftentimes they have a difficult time with the language. I had one person who came down. And his translator-interpreter, had another appointment court ran late, he could not speak a word of English. So I went to Google, and I translated what I wanted to say, using a translator wrote it down. And he understood what I was asking him to do when he needed to come back and meet with us with an interpreter.

Jim Newman: One thing that I’ll throw out there in my, my staff, and I, we, our team, work a lot with helping write questions, specifically to ask of clients, and we help write them in a conversational language mode, but we also make sure that they’re positive based. One thing that you have to be really clear when you’re writing your open-ended questions is, is that the first couple of times you write them? You’re probably going to write a question that can be answered with a yes or no. And that’s not open-ended. So just be sure that when you’re thinking about your open-ended questions, that you really give it time to understand and run it by numerous people to make sure that it is truly open-ended.



Audience Question: In terms of changing your language, such as using the term client and not using the terms like dirty UA, was it difficult to get other staff members to change their language and are there any strategies that you can suggest on how to overcome resistance? 

Michelle Hart:Absolutely, I think we had a mixed bag we have, you know, clients that have, you know, 10,15, 20 years and believe they’ve been and they have been doing great work for all those years. But the thing I think that helps resistance the best is just role modeling and getting your mid-management on board with it and setting it by example. And if we explain why, and show the differences, and maybe do role play to show our officers what it feels like when you’re in that situation. It comes around a lot quicker. But overall in our department, I think we’ve done a fairly good job of in our hiring practices because we really focus on that balance between enforcement and social work. And so we’ve been very lucky to engage officers that already have a mindset that wants to do the best for our clients and willing to grow and change. But when you do find that resistance, you just want to keep reinforcing and using positive reinforcement to our officers just like it works with our clients when they embrace the change.

Herb Sinkinson: I actually approached other colleagues if I do see that they’re using an approach that I think is less than beneficial and talk to them openly about, “Hey, you know, did you ever think about doing this? Did you ever think about doing that?” But of course, that’s a tedious sort of thing where it’s one to one, it’s only the things that I have observed directly.  I usually bring it to management and say; Look, you know, I think we got an opportunity here to improve how we’re communicating with that client and staff as well. It’s a good subject for a meeting. And it’s certainly a good subject to talk to HR about and see if we can line up some training and things like ethics has definitely helped us as an organization, to change our approaches to a more beneficial way of interacting.

Jim Newman: Some of the things that I’ll point out about that change is that there’s a lot of evidence-based stuff out there that you can get through a PPA, you can also get through DOJ in the name convention changing and things like that. All of these national organizations have changed the way that they, what they call the person or the client as we, as we call them, and all the things that we do, but you’re seeing this effect happening from the top down by all agencies as we come through it. It will make its way everywhere over the next couple of years and you’ll see that. I think the other big thing is to force your technology vendors to make that change if they’re calling in your technology, and you’re opening up a record of an individual, and it says offender there, that should be changed. Because that in itself is allowing your officer to say, “Well, you’re still calling it that in our system, what can I call it?”. So again, you want to make sure that when you make that change, you’re making that change everywhere?



Audience Question: Our department is big on giving clients EPICS homework, however many of them don’t bring it back. How can we get more engagement with these assignments? 

Herb Sinkinson: The one thing that I do is, I made sure that right off the bat that I recognize even a small accomplishment that people make and even if it’s just a small effort, but not as tangible results in terms of whatever lesson they were supposed to accomplish. But  I let them know that I’m here to help coach them. I’m not here to catch them doing the wrong thing. I’m not here to punish them. I’m here to work with them so that they can get through this process of probation or parole or furlough successfully. And that I’m a resource to them, but I need them to buy in and to give an honest effort into things. And then if I see that they’re not making it, then I suspect that maybe there’s something else going on. And that’s where it gets into some open-ended questions, starting off the conversation, and then maybe some specific ones, because maybe there’s something else going on with this person. Maybe they are unable to get this done in their home because they’re being abused, and they have to leave home at night because of their husband or boyfriend. Or maybe they have some other issue going on. Maybe drugs is beginning to enter into the picture again, or alcohol. In any event, I think it’s absolutely important to give people an Attaboy and an Attagirl. They’ve been told hundreds and hundreds of times about all their failures before they ever come to me. And so, you’ll notice when you start giving recognition many people really improve their response to you and so that’s the one single thing I think that I would emphasize.

Michelle Hart: I think positive reinforcement is absolutely key. And then the next step would be finding out from them what the barriers were to maybe not using the word barriers, but find out what was keeping them from completing that task. The list of tasks that they were given, the homework that they were given, was it a reasonable expectation, was that a reasonable timeframe? Is there a way to get out in the field and go to their home and help re-engage and midway through when you expect them to have had it completed to offer that support outside of the office to work on that homework?

Jim Newman: I’m going to take this from a different perspective and answer, kind of bring some other things to the table here. One of the things that when you look at this, you have to look at it from a behavior change perspective, and when you look at things like getting them to do their homework is maybe too large of a step for them to be able to do. And the time constraints of the officer to be able to do the positive reinforcement. And the follow-ups that are needed to make sure that that individual gets that done. So one thing that you all can look at is there are there is technology out there that will provide auto automatic feedback through positive reinforcement. It will also provide a number of ways of reminders, not your traditional reminders, like send an email, or make a phone call is really reminders in a number of different ways. And then on top of that, it will help in being able to engage them through a level of gamification. So if we can encourage them to reach different levels of the game. And a lot of these people are into the gaming and things of that nature. These can be brought to bear with different technologies that are on the market. I’m happy to answer any of those technology questions. Feel free to email me and I can lead you to different products that will do that. But this is another way to be able to engage your client but not put an overbearing amount of work on your officers. That is a key that everybody has to deal with. And then Michelle, you probably deal with it every day as a deputy director is that we want our officers to do the things they need to do. But we also need to help them get the client to engage and engage properly. So that’s just some another way to look at this other than the human side. There is a technology side that can be brought to bear here.

Herb Sinkinson: Also, I have found that motivational interviewing, if folks haven’t engaged in that and taking at least a cursory course in motivational interviewing can be very helpful in helping to establish a rapport with your client and to say things in a way that’s going to help them respond better.


Click Here to Watch a Recording of Are We Speaking the Same Language? Leveraging Conversational Language to Engage Clients.  


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