Four Indispensable Qualities of Effective Social Work Practice

By Valtreasa Tolliver-Cook, Ed.D, ACSW, MSW

“Sometimes all a person wants is an empathetic ear; all he or she needs is to talk it out. Just offering a listening ear and an understanding heart for his or her suffering can be a big comfort.”

~~Roy T. Bennett

I can’t image my life without social work. I had my first experience with a social worker, when I was only 14 years old. During this time my mother was hospitalized due to renal kidney failure and placed on dialysis. At the time, my mother was a 31 year old unemployed, single mother of four children, ages 14, 12, 8, and 3, one with a disability. It was a difficult time for my family, but it was a social worker who helped my family during this crisis. This outstanding social worker, whom I am proud to say was a young male social worker, was one of the best things that happen to my family (of course in addition to supportive family, friends, and neighbors). I feel that it is equally important to acknowledge that he was of a different ethnic background from my family. He genuinely cared about my family. He was patient and nonjudgmental.  He treated my mother with the utmost positive regard. He was empathetic. He listened and took the time to understand the needs of my mother and my entire family. He accurately facilitated cultural awareness and sensitivity. We trusted him and he trusted us. He empowered my mother and he empowered me. In fact, his professionalism had a profound impact on my decision to adhere to my calling to practice social work. I am proud to say that 31 years later, this social worker and I are now colleagues in the field of social work, but most importantly my mother is still on dialysis and living well. In addition to raising her own 4 children, she has also actively participated in rearing 5 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren.

The truth is, not everyone is cut out to be a social worker. Social work is both a rewarding and challenging profession and requires far more than just a desire to help. A desire to help is a good place to start, but social work is more than a desire, it’s a calling. Frederic Reamer (2012) in his article entitled, “Why Our World Needs Social Work” stated, “social work must be as much a calling as a career, characterized by a commitment to altruism, social justice, and service to the commonweal.” In fact, the primary mission of social work is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty (Preamble, Code of Ethics, National Association of Social Workers, 1996, revised by the 2008 NASW Delegate Assembly).

As social workers work with client systems of different sizes at various phases or stages of practice, it is imperative that social workers are: Empathetic, Active Listeners, Culturally Competent, and Authentic.

Empathetic. It’s okay to feel sorry for the problems that clients experience; however, social worker is not about feeling sympathetic, it’s about expressing empathy.  Empathy is very significant for effective social work practice. Without empathy, it is almost impossible to help clients. In fact, empathy is a key factor in all helping professional relationships. Empathy is a learned skill that is used by social workers and other helping professionals in an attempt to relate to, communicate with and understand what a client is experiencing from the client’s perspective. It also requires the social worker’s ability to communicate that understanding back to the client both verbally and nonverbally.

Active Listeners. Communication plays a major role in the effectiveness of social work practice, and this effectiveness begins with active listening.  In the article entitled “What is Active Listening?” Arlin Cuncis (2016), suggests that, “Active listening is the process of listening attentively while someone else speaks, paraphrasing and reflecting back what is said, and withholding judgement and advice.” According to Patricia Smith (2017) in her article entitled, “Active Listening in Social Work: The Value and Rewards”, she stated that active listening “connects people, helps people get to know one another, challenges preconceived perceptions, breaks down barriers of stereotypes, gives insight into how individuals view and cope with their experiences.”

Culturally Competent. The ability to provide effective social work practice is maximized when social workers demonstrate cultural awareness, sensitivity, and have specific culture knowledge about the clients they serve. Effective practice requires social workers to view each client as unique and inherently valuable regardless of racial or ethnic background, gender, age, ability, sexual orientation, or circumstances. According to Amy Seipel and Ineke Way (2006) in their article entitled, “Culturally Competent Social Work Practice with Latino Clients” they emphasized that, “without cultural awareness, social workers contribute to oppression when working with clients from other cultures.” In addition, cultural sensitivity affords social workers the opportunity to respond to clients in a respectful and appropriate manner that recognizes and affirms their worth, regardless of their culture background. Effective social work practice also requires that social workers are cognizant of their own culture, beliefs, and values in order to minimize and/or eliminate the possibility of stereotyping, becoming judgmental, and imposing their values on their clients.

Authentic. Authenticity in effective social work practice refers to the realness and earnestness of a social worker’s manner of relating to his or her client. It is important for social workers to live and work authentically as much as possible. Social worker’s awareness of who they are personally and professionally has a profound effect on their ability to be effective social work practitioners.  Social workers must be sure that their expressions do not appear rehearsed or manufactured. An authentic social worker openly shares his or her thoughts and feelings.  In fact Barry R. Cournoyer (2014) author of “The Social Work Skills Workbook” suggests that “a social worker’s presentation be congruent, so that verbal, nonverbal, and behavioral expressions reflect synchronicity. Authenticity encourages clients to be open and honest thus enhancing the client-social work relationship.”  Kristin Battista-Frazee (2015) in her article entitled, “Authenticity and Your Brand, suggests that “by offering a more genuine self, we elicit better engagement and sharing from clients, colleagues, and advocates.”

In conclusion, not everyone has the skills, knowledge and values required for effective social work practice. However, there are many who are well qualified because they are committed to the calling. Those who have accepted the calling exemplify the mission of the profession because they possess the indispensable qualities of empathy, active listening, cultural competence, and authenticity.

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