Tag Archives: disguised compliance

‘Disguised compliance’ as example of Jargon and Cliche – the chilling effects on working relationships

“… they are basically stripping us of any rights we have, freedom of speech, our private life, freedom of choice, taking away our descion making and how the sw precieves this Is exactly how it is there is no other version of things in their eyes their’s is the only view that’s right and if your don’t conform to it then you are being disguise compliance well it really is a case of do as I say or reap the consequences…”

This post arises out of a discussion on Facebook. The phrase ‘disguised compliance’ appears to be used more frequently in care proceedings recently. What does it mean? What do parents think it means? Is this just another example of the potentially very damaging impact of jargon upon effective communication and good working relationships?

You may also be interested to see our post where we attempt to translate some of the more commonly used profession jargon.

What is ‘disguised compliance?’

The NSPCC provide this definition:

‘Disguised compliance’ involves a parent or carer giving the appearance of co-operating with child welfare agencies to avoid raising suspicions, to allay professional concerns and ultimately to diffuse professional intervention.

The term is attributed to Peter Reder, Sylvia Duncan and Moira Gray who outlined this type of behaviour in their book Beyond blame: child abuse tragedies revisited :

“Sometimes, during cycles of intermittent closure, a professional worker would decide to adopt a more controlling stance. However, this was defused by apparent co-operation from the family. We have called this disguised compliance because its effect was to neutralise the professional’s authority and return the relationship to closure and the previous status quo.” (Reder et al, 1993, pp 106-7).1

Examples of disguised compliance would be a sudden increase in school attendance, attending a run of appointments, engaging with professionals such as health workers for a limited period of time, or cleaning the house before a visit from a professional.

Impact of use of jargon in working relationships between parents and professionals.

‘Jargon’ is defined in this way by Tony Proscio

The technical definition of jargon, the strictest, is language that is so technical that a person outside the field, the layperson so to speak, wouldn’t understand it, but that’s not the way most people that I work with think about jargon and it’s not generally the way I use the word either. For me, the definition of jargon is language that stops the reader instead of encouraging the reader to keep going, reader or listener. It’s language that either is grating or hard to figure out or seemingly wrong in some way that makes the reader or the listener stop and, instead of paying attention to your point, pay attention to your language.

Kate Wells has written about the importance of using language to communicate between social worker and parent. There is clearly a danger that the use of jargon seriously impedes communication. It may reassure the professional as a badge of their intelligence or learning – but it alienates, frustrates and confuses the lay person.

Mark Neary wrote about the use of jargon he encountered in the adult care system for his autistic son, and how this use of language meant his son’s life was further defined as ‘not normal’. For example where Mark Neary simply had ‘friends’ his son had a ‘circle of support and influence’. The alienating impact of this kind of language is clear.

But ‘disguised compliance’ is not simply jargon, it is also a cliche. It appears to be used increasingly frequently in assessments of parents.  The negative impact of cliches is described in this way by Tony Poscio, in answer to the question why cliches are so irritating:

It’s partly the effect of just hearing anything over and over and over again. After a while you just get first bored and then irritated. Hearing the same word used repeatedly gives the subtle, maybe subliminal, impression that the person speaking or writing doesn’t have much of a vocabulary. That is it actually undermines the impression that the writer is trying to give of intelligence or mastery of the subject and instead replaces it with the only word this person knows. We don’t necessarily know we’re doing it. In fact, I may be doing it in this call and you’ll probably get ten emails later saying the jerk was doing exactly what he was criticizing and that maybe because it is a human tendency when you find a word that works, that describes what you want it to describe, you tend to use it over and over again, but it’s a harmful tactic for communication because the effect on the reader is just grating.

The further danger of use of the term ‘disguised compliance’ is the frustration it causes in parents who cannot see what they can do to show professionals that they are taking concerns on board. If the parents refuse to co-operate they are viewed with suspicion; but co-operating doesn’t help either as this will be reduced to ‘disguised compliance’.

The use of jargon and cliche is particularly infuriating for parents when it is seen as an attempt to mask hypocrisy or lazy thinking. For example, a typical complaint from many parents, is if they are late for contact with their children, this will be written up as evidence of their lack of consideration for their children or their inability to plan their lives. Social workers who are late for appointments however will blame traffic jams.

Views of a parent

I’m speechless I’ve spent a couple of hours reading about disguise compliance and my honest view everyone on here is disguise compliance because we are taking a stand. Some of the advice on community care for social workers is don’t ever believe a parent, anyone that makes a complaint has issues with authorities, a parent may have a good relationship with one professional they clearly got motives to hide abuse …  if u don’t agree to the appointment they want to have with you because u made plans three weeks ago to meet up with a friend who you haven’t seen for a long time and they ring up the day before or sometimes hours before because you say you can’t your busy but any other day is fine you are avoiding in their eyes.
If they turn up early or late for appointment and you have not quite made it home or you have waited in hours for them.and you had to go out again you are hiding something if you refuse to consent to given the access to your medical records you are hiding something, well no you keeps saying the concerns are with my child why do u need to know my personal medical history it’s not going to show if the child is ill is it, they are basically stripping us of any rights we have, freedom of speech, our private life, freedom of choice, taking away our descion making and how the sw precieves this Is exactly how it is there is no other version of things in their eyes their’s is the only view that’s right and if your don’t conform to it then you are being disguise compliance well it really is a case of do as I say or reap the consequences…


There are strong temptations to slip into ‘industry speak’ – as a sign of your belonging, as effective shorthand when communicating with other professionals, etc. But we have to be aware of the impact of our language. Not only can it serve as a barrier to communication but it can have a detrimental impact on our ability to think about what we are really saying and what we really mean.

It was recognised and discussed at the Child Protection Conference in June 2015 that there was work to be done on simplifying and humanising the language used by professionals. Delegates were asked to give their definitions of commonly used phrases in care proceedings such as ‘pre-contemplative stage’ or ‘attachment’. Even when people were confident that the meaning of the word was ‘clear’ there were a great many variations on the definitions they gave; the words and phrases did not mean the same things to the same people.

Tony Proscio was asked if people got better results when they’re more direct, when they use simple language and avoid phrases like “engagement” or “advocacy,” . He answered:

… If the objective is to inspire people or to sort of prod them to action, the sounds and the words they hear ought to strike them as coming from friends and allies, not from a disgruntled professor. The whole point of inspiring people to do things is that you reach them at a level that’s both emotional and intellectual. The emotions are stirred by emotional speech and the intellect is stirred by originality. Neither of those things is going to come from a lot of cliché, jargon, abstractions, and technicalities.

Further reading