Professional curiosity in safeguarding adults: Strategic Briefing (Research  in Practice for Adults) 

April 2024: This new chapter explains why it is important for practitioners to be professionally curious when working with adults who may be experiencing abuse or neglect. It covers what professional curiosity is, and provides examples of ways in which practitioners and show professional curiosity.

1. What is Professional Curiosity

Professional curiosity is about exploring and understanding what is happening in a person’s life, rather than accepting things at face value. It involves observing, listening, asking direct questions and sometimes having difficult conversations with people. It is also known as ‘respectful uncertainty’.

It is about practitioners making sure that – when working with adults and their families / friends and carers– that they keep an open mind, ask questions, dig deeper and challenge their own assumptions as well as those of other practitioners.

Professional curiosity and challenge are essential part of practice, with the aim of keeping adults with care and support needs safe. Safeguarding Adults Reviews have often found that practitioners have not been curious enough, have not asked enough probing questions and have too easily accepted situations as they have been presented to them.

The risks of abuse or neglect that an adult may face are not always immediately obvious, especially if they or their family / friends do not want practitioners to know what is really happening. This may be more likely if an adult is being abused or neglected by someone they know or there are other types of criminality in the home. Being more curious as practitioners and digging deeper into areas of an adult’s life or circumstances, can help inform assessments and empower staff to influence key moments of decision-making and therefore help to keep adults safe and promote their wellbeing (see Promoting Wellbeing chapter).

Professional curiosity can help practitioners:

  • understand the full picture;
  • make sure they have all the necessary information;
  • improve outcomes for adults with whom they are working;
  • help keep adults safe;
  • identify disguised compliance (see Section 3, Disguised Compliance);
  • support other professionals working with the adult, including those from partner agencies.

Whilst this information focuses on practitioners working with adults with care and support needs, it also applies when working with children and families.

2. Professionally Curious Practice

Professional curiosity requires practitioners to:

Adults may not always disclose information about abuse and / or neglect directly to practitioners, particularly when they first meet. This can make identifying adults who are, or at risk of, being abused or neglected more challenging. Being professionally curious is, therefore, key to being able to identify possible abuse and acting promptly to safeguard the adult and promote their wellbeing.

It can also mean considering issues which may be outside of their usual professional role. In such circumstances, discussions should take place with line managers and staff from other agencies to clarify roles and responsibilities, to ensure all relevant care and support is in place for the adult.

There are different ways of being professionally curious. These include observing, asking, listening and clarifying. Practitioners should spend time engaging with adults and their families / friends on visits, using these approaches as required.

2.1 Observing

  • Do you see or observe anything, when you meet with the adult / their family / friends, that makes you feel uncomfortable?
  • Do you observe behaviours which indicate abuse or neglect, including domestic abuse (see Types and Indicators of Abuse and Neglect and Domestic Abuse chapters)?
  • Does what you observe either contradict or support what you are being told by the adult, their family or other practitioners who are involved?
  • How do the adult and family members interact and communicate with each other, and with you?
  • Do you want to ask further questions as a result of what you have seen?

2.2 Asking

  • Do not assume you know what is happening in the adult’s home environment – ask questions and seek clarity if you feel you are not sure.
  • Do not be afraid to ask questions of everyone involved, including any visitors to the home. Be open in the way you ask questions, so that people know it is about being able to achieve the best outcomes for the adult – you are not judging or criticising them.
  • Be open to accepting new or unexpected information that may not support your initial assumptions about the situation. Incorporate this into your assessment and review care and support plans as necessary

2.3 Listening

  • Are you being told anything that you think you needs further clarification (see Section 2.4 Clarifying)?
  • Do you feel the adult, family member or friend is trying to tell you something, either verbally or through non-verbal cues, for example you pick up in their body language or what they are not saying?
  • Is there anything that concerns you about how family members or friends interact with the adult and what they say?
  • It is essential that you have the time and space to have a private conversation with the adult, to give them the opportunity to say anything they want without family / friends listening or speaking for them. This should not just be a one-off conversation but as often as possible, as it may take time for the adult to build up a trusting relationship with you.

2.4 Clarifying

  • Are practitioners from other agencies involved? If so, what information do they have?
  • Are other practitioners being told the same things by the adult / family /friends as you, or are they being given different accounts of the same situation?
  • Are other practitioners concerned about the adult, and if so what are their concerns?
  • Would a multi-disciplinary discussion be useful / required?
  • What action has been taken so far? Is there anything else which could or should be done by you or someone else to support the adult?

Sharing relevant information with relevant practitioners from other agencies is key to safeguarding adults who are experiencing, or at risk of, abuse and / or neglect and, as well as ensuring better outcomes for all adults who have care and support needs. See South Tyneside Multi Agency Information Sharing Agreement.

3. Disguised Compliance

Some adults, family members or friends may display a behaviour called ‘disguised compliance’. This is when people give the appearance of co-operating with agencies in order to deflect practitioner concerns and avoid raising suspicions.

People will often want to show their ‘best side’ when interacting with practitioners; this can be quite normal behaviour. To a small degree, disguised compliance can be seen in many people. However, there is a difference between this and someone who is being superficially cooperative in order to keep abuse or neglect of the adult hidden and practitioners away. In such cases, the adult, family member or friend plans this compliance, to make it look like they are cooperating, when in reality they are not.

There is a risk that practitioners who are not professionally curious may delay or avoid taking action, due to disguised compliance.

4. Professional Challenge

Practitioners may experience differences of opinion, concerns and issues both with colleagues in their own organisation and with those from other agencies. In such circumstances it is vital these are resolved as effectively and swiftly as possible.

Working with different professional perspectives is a key part of a healthy and well-functioning partnership, and differences of opinion can usually be resolved by discussion and negotiation between the practitioners concerned. It is essential however, that where differences of opinion arise they are resolved in a constructive and timely manner, so they do not adversely affect the outcomes for adults and their families / friends.

If there is a difference of opinion between practitioners, remember:

  • the process of resolving professional differences and disagreements can help find better ways to improve outcomes for adults and their families / friends;
  • each practitioner is responsible for their own cases and their actions in relation to individual adults;
  • differences and disagreements should be resolved as simply and quickly as possible by individual practitioners and /or their line managers;
  • everyone should respect the views of others, whatever the level of their experience;
  • discussions about disagreements should always be respectful and courteous and remain professional at all times;
  • challenging more senior or experienced practitioners can be difficult, so practitioners may need support to do so when necessary;
  • practitioners should expect to be challenged and not take it personally – working together effectively depends on open and honest relationships between agencies.

The likelihood of professional differences is reduced by everyone being clear about their roles and responsibilities and ensuring that they do what has been agreed as well as the ability to discuss and share problems.

See Escalation and Challenge Protocol.

5. Supervision

Regular supervision helps improve practitioner decision-making, accountability, and supports professional development. It is also an opportunity to question and explore an understanding of a case.

Group supervision and reflective practice can also be effective in promoting professional curiosity, as practitioners can use these spaces to think about their own judgments and observations and discuss them with colleagues in a safe space. It allows practitioners to learn from each other’s experiences, especially as the issues considered may be similar to other cases.


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