By Cooper Nelson
Social work supports people and families in need, providing resources and assistance for a variety of concerns. Because every person, family and situation is different, social workers rely on a diverse skill set. Although expertise can vary according to specialization, all social workers rely on a few common skills and traits to be effective. Here, we explore skills and strengths that are vital to the field.
In addition to the specific education and training needed to enter the field, social workers should have or strengthen several personal qualities to best support their clients. While some of these qualities may come naturally, others might require more effort or intention. The good news? No skill is entirely outside the range of possibility, no matter where your natural strengths lie.
A 2020 study on the importance of empathy in the healthcare field states: “Empathy is one of the fundamental tools of the therapeutic relationship between the [caregivers] and their patients and it has been proven that its contribution is vital to better health outcomes.”
The study discusses what it means to be empathetic and how empathy differs from sympathy and compassion. This can be an important distinction for social workers as well.
Social work can take an emotional toll over time, so practicing empathy is essential, especially when faced with challenges. It’s important to be understanding not only to your clients but also to yourself so that you can continue to provide the best care and support possible in the long term.
Patience and empathy go hand in hand. Fully understanding another person’s perspective or experience can take both effort and time.
Additionally, slow-moving bureaucracy is an unfortunate reality of social work. Individuals prone to impatience might feel a lot of recurring frustration with this aspect, which could negatively impact their work.
While the patience required in social work may vary greatly from the general patience needed for everyday life, there are ways to develop this skill that can be beneficial in any situation. For example, a significant way to improve patience is to practicing intentional patience, even during daily events.
This can look different ways, such as slowing down when you’re rushing to do something or by learning to accept feeling uncomfortable when someone or something else is taxing your patience. The effect of patience can be profound, especially when faced with situations where patience is not only a benefit but also a requirement.
When working with clients who face recurring issues that can’t be fixed overnight, a long-term commitment to problem-solving may be the difference between temporary fixes and permanent solutions.
Patience and empathy are similar because they can be stretched thin without proper support. Social workers’ commitment can become strained if they’re unable to deal effectively with the emotional load, or “vicarious trauma,” as one study phrased it.
To succeed in social work, people need to be aware of the emotional labor that comes with the job. They should be committed to their desire to act and dedicate themselves to their chosen field while remaining committed to their self-care as well.
It’s not uncommon for social workers to attend to people and families who are less than grateful for their involvement. One 2020 study explored “involuntary” and sometimes “hostile” social-work relationships along with the potential reasons for that hostility and general mistrust.
The study emphasized the importance of showing respect for even “hostile” clients, stating, “Professionals need much more training to help them learn strategies that defuse these potentially explosive relationships, recognize their role in co-constructing the hostility, and how to work through resistance and engage with children and parents in respectful, reciprocal ways.”
While not all clients will be gracious, a social worker must be unshakable in demonstrating respect for their clients and their situations in order to achieve an optimal outcome for everyone.
Social workers leverage a range of soft and hard skills when working with clients. Here are the essential ones.
Communication, empathy and respect naturally work hand in hand to produce a well-rounded social worker. Particularly when it comes to their clients, social workers should keep in mind several forms of communication, including:
Failing to meet or exceed the needs of good communication while working with clients or peers could lead to broken trust and delays in providing help and resources to clients.
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The ability to effectively organize all aspects of legal documentation and client notes, in addition to the details of their own life, will likely impact a social worker’s success. Widespread disorganization may lead to otherwise avoidable mistakes that could negatively affect the social worker and their clients.
Overall, strong organizational skills are essential for social workers, considering the amount of work they juggle. For example, a 2021 survey found that 75% of social workers reported working more hours than initially designated due to their workload. In light of this expectation and the number of clients a social worker may have, strong organizational skills can help prevent avoidable errors in important tasks like legal documentation, scheduling and welfare checks.
Intentional listening while working with clients is one of a social worker’s most important skills.
Working with clients goes beyond simply hearing their concerns and then offering solutions. As a social worker, it’s important to also listen for signs of withheld information, dishonesty, tonal changes, details that don’t line up and other potential red flags.
This approach to listening is sometimes referred to as active listening, and it can play a role in building trust.
Not all situations with clients will be straightforward — some clients may even withhold important information or change what they share about events to avoid embarrassment or guilt. In cases like these, critical thinking by social workers can help prevent or correct important inaccuracies.
According to one study focused on determining truths in social work, “suspicion-level increases lie-detection accuracy, whereas situational familiarity increases truth-detection accuracy.”
Essentially, the more suspicious or discerning a person is, the more likely they are to spot a lie. On the flip side, the more familiar a social worker is with a situation, the more easily they can suss out the truth. Combined with active, intentional listening, the ability to think critically is a non-negotiable quality to have and improve upon to ensure families receive the best assistance.
In addition to hard and soft skills, states require specific training from traditional schooling and social work-related courses.
The necessary education to become a social worker depends on what industry one chooses to work in. Potential industries include:
Some career paths are more specialized than others and may require higher education in social work. Other paths may not be as specialized and could benefit from a social work degree at any level.
If you aren’t sure where you want to focus your career in social work but know you have a passion for it, consider starting with a general bachelor’s degree in social work to build a strong foundation while learning where your specialized interests lie.
Formal education will not only provide you with knowledge of the social work system, but it will also afford you opportunities to highlight your strengths and improve upon your weaknesses. From there, you can seek out further steps to gain a license in your state of residence.
While not everyone naturally excels in every social worker skill, everyone can learn and improve, as long as they have the passion and dedication to do so.
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