Dr Laura Jenkins

Doctoral Prize Fellow – Criminology, Sociology and Social Policy

Doctoral Prize Fellow Dr Laura Jenkins is a Communication Scientist who uses the tools of conversation analysis to study everyday domestic conversations as well as discussions in a range of medical settings including seizure clinics, palliative care, and paediatrics. She also develops and provides communication skills training to help organisations better communicate with their stakeholders and service users. In a new strand of work – funded by a Doctoral Prize Fellowship – she is exploring and enhancing children’s engagement with the Youth Justice System.

The importance of effective communication

Conversation analysis explores natural spoken interactions and non-verbal gestures – not only what is said, but also how it is expressed. Understanding the mechanics of conversation – its rules, structures, and meanings – makes it possible to pinpoint what makes an interaction successful or not. This knowledge can help us to speak to positive effect in a difficult situation and achieve a beneficial resolution for everyone involved.

To find out more about conversation analysis, listen to Michael Rosen interviewing Professor Elisabeth Stokoe on BBC Radio 4’s Word of Mouth.

Real Talk

My research grows from my passion for understanding human interaction and relationships. I am particularly motivated by social justice and a desire to tackle the institutional disadvantages some people face. Over the years – having worked in a voluntary capacity with children and young people, migrants and refugees, and women at risk of exploitation – I’ve seen just how important effective communication in these situations is.

I have a real interest in examining conversations – and the advantages and challenges some speakers have – in a scientific way. My PhD focused on family interactions, by asking families to video record their everyday mealtimes. I ended up with a brilliant series of recordings of everyday chatting round the table, with all the humdrum stresses and hilarity of family life.

My findings about how children express their sensations and experiences in these conversations fascinated me. Although feelings and pain are generally thought to be very subjective and private experiences, when a child says that their head or tummy hurts, adults often reply in ways that tweak how serious it is. Importantly, it’s all tangled up in the main mealtime tasks at hand – when children say they’re in pain, it may get treated as an attempt to avoid eating.

I could clearly see how children’s rights to say how they feel play out in very tangible interactional patterns in the turn-taking rhythm of conversation.

When children attend appointments with adults, there is a real complexity of dynamics to manage in terms of who gets to speak, what gets talked about, and how decisions are made.

Child and parent visiting a doctor

In collaboration with Professor Alexa Hepburn (Rutgers University), I’ve been leading a project exploring younger children’s involvement in paediatric consultations. We found that when doctors are speaking with parents, children can and do enter the conversation, and contribute medically valuable input, but they have to work quite hard to do so.

What appeals to me about undertaking painstakingly detailed and scientific observations about conversation is translating the findings into a format that is accessible and transformative for practitioners.

A close friend once observed that she recognised her colleague’s empathy and skill in talking to patients about sensitive topics, but she couldn’t put her finger on how they did it so well.

I have been involved in two brilliant projects in which I developed evidence-based communication training materials designed to enhance healthcare communication derived from my analysis of actual conversations.

In a project I worked on with Professor Markus Reuber, we designed and delivered video-based resources in neurology to help doctors more effectively differentiate between epileptic and psychogenic nonepileptic seizures when talking to patients.

The Doctoral Prize Fellowship gives me the chance to support children moving through the Youth Justice System by ensuring that practitioners can communicate effectively with them.

Child and parent eating a meal

I’ve created similar materials for palliative care settings – Real Talk. These support clinicians, helping them to manage difficult and sensitive conversations about end-of-life care – particularly around pain communication – with empathy and honesty.

With my Doctoral Prize Fellowship I’m turning my attention to children’s engagement with the Youth Justice System (YJS). My research builds on the University’s existing expertise in Child First Justice, an approach that prioritises the child’s best interests and promotes positive outcomes. This involves working with children and their carers to encourage participation, engagement, and social inclusion.

Applying my expertise in communication, I’m going to be looking at how YJS professionals interact with the children they work with. In collaboration with Youth Justice practitioners and children, I will study recorded interactions to identify the barriers and enablers that affect children’s participation in the process.

Drawing on my findings, and with ongoing input from stakeholders, I’ll produce interactive training resources for practitioners and, uniquely, animated materials for (and co-created by) the children they work with. The latter, in conjunction with the University’s Animation Academy. My aim is to help ensure the best possible outcomes for everyone involved in the YJS.

I believe that the appropriate word or gesture at the right moment can really make a difference to the course of a conversation. By providing people – particularly those in challenging roles and situations – with the necessary tools to communicate effectively and navigate to a successful conclusion I hope that my work is making a real difference to people’s lives.

My research journey

From an early age, I’ve been fascinated by human psychology and by the idea of a systematic approach to understanding what makes people tick. It was one of my A-Level subjects and I always knew it was the field that I wanted to understand at a deeper level.

In 2001, I began my undergraduate studies at Aston University – graduating in 2005 with a First in Human Psychology. One particular module grabbed my attention – Critical Psychology an approach which interrogates the power that psychology creates and sustains, and asks who benefits or suffers by it.

I realised, for the first time, that we could examine the things we say and the things we write to understand our social world. I was enthused by work that investigated the language we use as a way to tackle oppression and social injustices.

In my own research I spoke to professionals who worked with women involved in street-based sex work. My work showed the diverse and conflicting ways in which women are described as empowered agents, victims of exploitation and perpetrators of crime.

My degree included a Professional Training placement year with Coventry NHS Psychological Services where researched the needs of looked after children with learning disabilities. I gained valuable insights into the work of a clinical psychology team and the lasting impact of adverse childhood experiences.

I stayed at Aston to complete my MSc in Health Psychology, achieving a Distinction. My research involved facilitating interactive focus-groups with primary school children on the topic of healthy eating.

At this point, I realised that I wanted to pursue a career in research, and decided a PhD was the best route forward. I was drawn to Loughborough, the home of an intimidatingly brilliant group of international experts in language and social interaction, whom I immediately found to be very friendly and academically nurturing.

I embarked on an MRes in Science Research Methods followed by my PhD - supervised by Professor Alexa Hepburn and Professor Derek Edwards - which analysed children’s expressions of pain and bodily discomfort in conversations recorded during family mealtimes. During this time I learned how to analyse conversations “in the wild” as opposed to interviewing people, and I benefitted hugely from being part of the regular analytic sessions hosted by the Discourse and Rhetoric Group (DARG).

I took a year’s parental leave and finished my doctorate in 2013, after which I secured a Postdoctoral Researcher post at The University of Sheffield. Funded by Epilepsy Action, I worked as a Conversation Analyst developing neurology communication skills training.

In 2015, I acquired a Research Fellowship at The University of Nottingham where I again put my conversation analysis skills to use in a medical context – and experienced my first successful foray into applying for project grant funding, as co-author of a Health Foundation grant to join Professor Ruth Parry’s VERDIS team.

My role was to analyse conversations in which experienced Consultants in Palliative Medicine undertake assessments of their patients’ pain, and to develop communication training materials for RealTalk.

It felt like coming home when I returned to Loughborough in 2018 to continue to work with the VERDIS team, focusing on tender ways to approach difficult conversations around death and dying in palliative care.

In 2021, I was thrilled to be awarded the Doctoral Prize Fellowship which gives me the chance to work with Professor Steve Case to explore ways to support children moving through the Youth Justice System by ensuring that practitioners can communicate effectively with them.

Each of my post-doctoral positions have been part-time, during which I have taken several more periods of parental leave. When I am not leading my Doctoral Prize Fellowship research, I can be found in the bustle of life with my four home-educated children.

Alongside my research, I am actively involved in initiatives that seek to promote racial justice, equity and inclusion – including my School’s EDI Committee and the University’s Women’s Network, Maia – as well as national interfaith programmes.

For the next four years of the Doctoral Prize Fellowship, I’ll be contributing new understandings about communicative practices to improve the lives of children in the Youth Justice system.

My long-term aim is to build a robust knowledge base about communication with children across a range of settings – and continue to use empirical analysis of interactions to make a positive difference.

Photograph of Laura Jenkins

Dr Laura Jenkins

Doctoral Prize Fellow

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