In addition to the Social Work specific skills needed to undertake the job we do, there are interpersonal skills that Social Workers need to master for several reasons. First and foremost, our primary business is with populations with which most people do not want to work. Second, they come to us with a variety of issues that are difficult to verbalize. Third, we are considered the experts. Social Work is a skilled profession and we need to conduct ourselves as such. Without, professionalism, achieved through strong interpersonal and career specific skills, we lose the hard earned respect of our partners and peers. We do the profession a disservice because we are not representing it to the highest standard.
The following is just a basic outline of the interpersonal skills we need in order to work effectively with our clientele and represent ourselves as experts in our field.
1 – Communication
- Written – it is crucial for Social Workers to be able to write for a variety of audiences. You need to be able to express your expertise to managers, supervisors, court systems and clients to name a few. As a rule, when writing documents to which clients will have access, I make sure to use as little jargon as possible. Where jargon is needed, I ensure that this is explained as simply as possible so we keep communication open and honest. It is important in written communication, especially formal reports and those for court, to spell properly and be grammatically correct. The use of words is a skill. It is imperative that you not only understand what you write, but also that you mean what you write. It is time consuming but make sure you proof read. Also, unless you speak English to a high standard, never write the way you speak! Many of us used relaxed speech, especially when working with children and young people; this should not be reflected in written documents unless you’re using a direct quote.
- Verbal – I cannot stress the enough, sometimes what you say is less important than how you say it. I always joke with friends and family, saying “you can tell me I stink. Whether or not I accept it depends on how you tell me.” When speaking/having conversations should always consider your audience as well. I always opt for a sympathetic ear because it allows a bit of distance. It gives the client a chance to off load and me a chance to gather information I may not have been able to get if I were more formal. Try to remember that conversation is dynamic and multi-dimensional. In conversation, you have what you say, what the other person hears and how this is then interpreted through the lens of their previous experience. By the time they process it, it may be an entirely different animal than you intended it to be. A big part of this is knowing your clients, having read previous files before meeting with them. I don’t advocate for going into a meeting with clients, gun blazing because of what you read from someone else. You never know what the relationship was like in practice – maybe the previous worker triggered something in the client, maybe the previous worker reminded the client too much of someone in their lives with whom they have a difficult relationship, maybe their relationship mirrors other failed or difficult relationships. You cannot discount the information from the file/previous workers but I always look at a new working relationship as a “do-over” for clients, a new start.
- Non-verbal skills – it is important to be aware of your body language, the faces you make, the sounds you make and how you make eye contact. Body language is run through both cultural and ethnic lenses and a seemingly innocuous action may mean something entirely different and possibly disrespectful to someone else. Sometimes we unconsciously make faces when we hear something unexpected or something we don’t necessarily believe. It is important as a Social Worker that you learn to “school” your features, that is, you learn how not to let what you are thinking show on your face. Non-verbal communication can make or break a working relationship. If someone were to tell you about, smearing (covering walls and other surfaces with faeces) for example and you make a face as though you can smell it and are disgusted, your client may shut down. It may be a practice with which they are disgusted but unable to change and making a face reinforces the shame and guilt they may already be feeling.
- Listening – This is “our bread and butter” as they say. Listening, in any Social Work setting, it how we gather information. It is not only important to listen and hear what the person is saying but you have to show you are actively engaged in conversation in order for it to be substantive. People like to see that you are engaged with them. Nodding, making affirmative sounds, making eye contact, asking for clarification, sitting at a respective distance, facing a person while they are talking are all ways to show that you are actively listening. There are those times when you need to write things down, either for your own memory or while assisting with an application etc. In these instances there is nothing wrong with saying to someone you are going to write things down and why, or, going so far as to ask if they mind if you do this. In some settings taking notes while someone is talking can be too distracting to the process. It might be better to allocate time for you to take notes following a meeting or session with a client.
- Problem Solving – There are many occasions when we get to know our clients in the midst of a crisis. It is important that we identify what the crisis is and address it. If we are working in a long term team we will need to get this addressed so we can get started on the plan for the family. Problem solving is much like care planning only in the short term. It is about identifying the problem, breaking it down into smaller tasks and allocating these, then coming back to the table to make sure that everyone has completed their individual tasks so the problem is addressed. If the problem is something bigger, like a housing issue etc. it may be that this needs to be added to the care plan as a longer term task so it is not forgotten. In Social Work, we need to “think on our feet” we need to be able to think through problems quite quickly, sometimes coming up with bridging responses until we are in a place to deal with the issue in totality. We need to be able to address minor issues quickly so it does not overwhelm the longer piece of work that we need to undertake with a client or client system.
- Negotiation – A great skill to have personally and professionally. Professionally it is always helpful if you and your client are working together toward a common goal. Too many times out clientele are involuntary, which means they may not agree with what you think the problem is but they still need to work with you. If you are able to negotiate time where you address the need identified as well as those things they see as a problem you get further in the working relationship. You are communicating to them that while your work is important you are also concerned about their concerns and want them to be empowered to change their circumstances. Negotiation is also important in identifying those things you and your client will be working on for the duration of your working relationship. When you get to the management level you will have to negotiate with your subordinates at times to ensure the work gets done when you need it and there are competing priorities.
- Decision making – Decision making is about using the information you have to come up with a plan to move forward. This is a big part of management. As a manager you go on the information provided to you by Social Workers in order to provide case oversight and direction. For this to work and work properly, the information needs to be as thorough as possible and it needs to be accurate. Making decisions on bits and pieces of information without having a view of the bigger picture is dangerous and professionally unsound. As a Social Worker is it necessary to gather and corroborate as much information as possible as part of your assessment in order to put the appropriate interventions into place. Without precise and detailed information it is quite possible to put in interventions that do nothing to address the actual issue at hand. For instance, if you don’t know that a father is drinking because he is not working and you address the drinking but not the unemployment, there is a risk that he will replace the alcohol with something else to address the feelings that being unemployed bring up for him. Honest and transparent working with clients means that at times they can be part of this process, they can help make decisions about how their issues are addressed, this can empower them and help make them feel part of the process and not just that they are being acted upon.
- Assertiveness – (Communicating our values, ideas, beliefs, opinions, needs and wants freely.) Being an assertive Social Worker means being clear about your role as a Social Worker, what you are and are not capable of doing, what is and isn’t within your remit, what the consequences are for not engaging and the sequence of events that may trigger the next level of intervention (i.e. – court, referrals, ect.). It is essential that we are clear with clients and professionals alike from the outset as to why we are involved and what we can, realistically, achieve. It’s about sharing the work around not feeling as though we need to do it all. Professionals and clients alike are quite happy to tell us when we are overstepping our boundaries or trying to extend ourselves beyond our remit, so I think it is crucial that we are just as clear with them when it comes to the work. It is also about being clear about our authority. It is possible to do this without portraying ourselves as a strictly punitive body. We do have the law behind us in most things we do and people know that. If you explain what is possible from the outset, although it may still arise, at least you know within yourself that you have done all you can to keep clients and professionals aware of what you are able to do and what you are not. I am not saying there will not be moments when your words go unheard, what I am saying is, say them anyway. You will have a frame of reference. If they chose to ignore it, you’re said and you can document that you did.