Social work requires a diverse and demanding range of professional, emotional, and cognitive skills. While many people who become social workers have a natural aptitude for these skills, it is essential to hone them throughout one’s career. In fact, becoming a life-long learner is an ethical requirement of professional social workers. While there is no definitive list, here are a few qualities and skills required to be a social worker.
1. Active Listening
Much of a social worker’s role is to listen effectively. This means reflecting back what clients say and being engaged in every conversation so that they know you understand them. Good listening establishes trust and respect early on, so clients will feel comfortable confiding in you. Most importantly, active listening not only builds a therapeutic alliance, but clients also feel seen and understood by you. Feeling visible and affirmed is a core component of any therapeutic alliance in any practice setting.
2. Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
Many people who decide to be social workers already have a high EQ, or emotional intelligence. This includes high levels of self-awareness, empathy, and sensitivity to others. Social work will often require balancing what you know (e.g., symptoms of a certain mental illness) and what you intuit (i.e., reading between the lines of what is said).
In addition to helping clients, social workers provide case management services, such as billing, maintaining collateral relationships, making phone calls, and networking with other service providers. Providing clinical case management and psychosocial support requires a great deal of organization and the ability to prioritize according to the urgency of a client’s needs.
4. Critical Thinking
People are complex, and our clients often seek help for problems in many domains of their lives. Being able to think on your feet and to think critically and creatively will allow you to effectively help your clients.
Social workers work with diverse clients. Being culturally responsive and approaching clients who are from different racial, socio-economic, and ethnic communities with respect and openness is a core component of social work practice.
6. Setting Boundaries
Social workers often feel that their work is never truly complete, and many take the emotional stress of their work home with them (intentionally or not). Setting boundaries between yourself and your clients, protecting time for self-care, and seeking support through one’s family, friends, and a broader professional community will help you create a healthier work-life balance. Leaving work at the office and enjoying personal time will make you a more effective professional and a happier individual.
Understanding others intellectually, culturally, and emotionally is important in social work. Without understanding or empathy, it is almost impossible to help clients. Empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in someone else’s situation and to feel some of what that person may be experiencing. Empathy, like all skills, can be understood and honed. Most people who choose to be social workers are already naturally empathic, but it still merits practice.
Social workers must communicate in many different ways and with many different people. It is important to be clear and transparent about the scope of services that you can provide as their social worker. This means saying what is within the realm of possibility and what is not. These can be hard conversations to have, especially when you want to do all you can to help your client. But, as you will learn in time, we have our limits. Be sure to incorporate this discussion as you are building a relationship during contracting and goal setting. Thus, this process is both written and verbally explored. Additional communication occurs between care providers, and you will be required to document what you do with your clients and to provide written reports for third party payers, your supervisor or agency administration, and co-workers.
9. Inner Strength
Social workers’ work can be emotionally challenging. When you are dedicated, it can take a lot out of you. It is essential to your health and the efficacy of your practice that you take care of yourself, emotionally and psychologically. You will derive more fulfillment from your work, and you will be a more effective helper to your clients if you take steps to fortify your personal strengths and capacities.
Social work is an incredibly meaningful career. It allows you to bring the best of yourself, a set of theories and knowledge about human development and behavior, and a range of practice approaches to help human beings who have experienced oppression, marginalization, mental illness, addiction, and trauma. If this resonates with you, you may want to consider clinical social work.
SocialWork@Simmons offers four fields of specializations in child and family, trauma and interpersonal violence, mental health and addictions, and health and aging. SocialWork@Simmons can help you pave the way toward a rewarding career, focused on helping individuals, groups, and communities in need.