Talking Mats is a visual tool which is designed to support people with communication and/or cognitive difficulties to consider issues and express their views (Murphy & Cameron, 2008).

The Talking Mats process requires three sets of picture communication symbols:

  • topics (cards that define the focus of the discussion),
  • options (cards that relate specifically to the topic),
  • a visual Likert scale (to allow participants to indicate their feelings about each option) and a space on which to display them.

Once the topic is defined, the participant is given the options one at a time and asked to think about how they feel about each card. The participant then places or indicates where to put the symbol under the visual scale to indicate what they feel (Murphy & Cameron, 2015).

I’ve recently become an Accredited Talking Mats trainer, which means I am able to provide Foundation level Talking Mats training to speech therapists, disability support workers, family members, managers – anyone who is interested in learning more about the newest way to have meaningful conversations with anybody, including people with communication difficulties.

Talking Mats appears to be a simple tool – but from experience, I know a lot of pre-planning and thought needs to occur weeks in advance of sitting down with someone for a chat! There are subtle and hidden complexities that need to be considered regarding the wording of questions, particularly how that wording relates to the top scale.

Before completing my Talking Mats training, it didn’t dawn on me that the conversation you’re going to have with someone using a Talking Mat hinges on the top scale that you use. And if you use the wrong top scale, you’ll end up having a very different conversation and end up with very different data to what you intended on getting.

For example, I once wanted to find out what a person wanted to prioritise for their therapy goals, so I brainstormed topic cards like “handwriting”, “talk to my friends/family”, “talk to people in the community”, “read novels” etc. and used the top scale:

  • I like it.
  • It’s ok.
  • I don’t like it.

We then had a really nice discussion using a Talking Mat. She placed the topic cards underneath the top scale, and we discovered she really liked things like “reading magazines”, “writing text messages”, and thought using social media was “ok,” and didn’t really like “reading novels” or “talking to people in the community.”

I walked away from that session and realised I didn’t know at all what she wanted to do in her speech therapy sessions! My top scale of “I like it”, “it’s ok” and “I don’t like it” told me what she liked and didn’t like, but didn’t tell me at all what she was “managing well”, “sort of managing” or “not managing”, or “definitely want to work on,” “sort of want to work on” or “don’t want to work on.”

Just because a person doesn’t like talking to people in the community, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily something they want to work on.

This taught me that the top scale is so important to guide the discussion. It needs to be carefully planned to ensure the thinker (i.e. the person I was supporting) and the listener (i.e. myself) are on the same page about what is being communicated – and also that the wording of the topic cards match and make sense to the top scale.

I recently trained a few of the speech therapists at Scope’s Communication and Inclusion Resource Centre (CIRC) and was amazed at all the different ways these speech therapists were excited to use Talking Mats.

These speech therapists spoke about using Talking Mats to:

  • Co-design communication aid content (e.g. what to put in a Book About Me) with clients,
  • Discuss what foods a client is/is not managing because of their swallowing condition – and brainstorm alternative foods instead,
  • Determine the priorities of what the client would like to get out of speech therapy.

Their ideas show the diverse range of applications for Talking Mats and the complexity of discussions that they could be used for.

I’ve really enjoyed providing Talking Mats training, because the learning really does go both ways. It seems like every person I train plans on using Talking Mats in a slightly different way, and listening to those reasons benefits the group that has attended the training to see how flexible this approach really is.

If you’ve used Talking Mats to have an interesting discussion with someone, or if you’d like to find out more about how you might become trained to use Talking Mats, contact Scope’s Communication & Inclusion Resource Centre (CIRC) at circ@scopeaust.org.au or 03 9843 2000.