On Being New to Social Work
Whether your title is therapist, counselor, case manager or the like, becoming a social worker the field can be scary. You question your skillset, your ability to best help your clients, if you’re prepared enough, if you can handle difficult situations, which techniques to use, which theoretical framework is best, what that criteria for that particular diagnosis was, how to properly document your case notes and the proper etiquette for home visits.
This is normal. Everyone goes through it. You have many resources at your disposal – books, articles, supervisors, co-workers and all those papers you wrote (or will be writing) in your master’s degree program.
Becoming a Social Worker is a Learning Process
However, becoming a social worker is going to be a learning process. You may make some mistakes but the best approach is to be self-aware and to ask for help whenever you need it.
The following list outlines common new therapist errors to be mindful of:
- Distracting mannerisms or facial expressions
- Poor attending skills and eye contact
- Difficulty following and focusing the direction of the client’s statements
- The use of close-ended questions and an interrogative style that puts the client on the defensive
- Frequent interruptions of the client’s natural stream of expression
- Noting surface messages of the client’s verbalizations rather than deeper level messages
- Relying exclusively on the content of communications rather than on effect or process
- Using excessive self-disclosure and inappropriately putting the focus on oneself
- Exaggerating passivity in therapeutic style
- Difficulty tolerating silence
- Appearing unduly cold, aloof and wooden in appearance
- Appearing too friendly, seductive and informal
- Being aggressive or punitive in confrontations
Arguably the most important trait to master when becoming a social worker in the field is active listening.
Even if you are still mastering other aspects of the field, knowing you excel at active listening provides a solid foundation and is a significant component of having confidence in your ability.
Here are ways to be successful at active listening:
If you are talking, it is impossible to be listening
Empathize with the Other Person
This is a significant part of being a social worker. Put yourself in their situation to gain insight
Ask when you don’t understand something, need further clarification, or are trying to lead the discussion in a certain direction. Don’t simply ask questions to challenge or embarrass your client
Silence is okay and can actually be a useful tool. Allow plenty of time, do not interrupt and work at the client’s pace
Concentrate on What is Being Said
Actively focus your attention on what the client is saying, what ideas they have and any non-verbal cues that are related to the presenting problem
Look at the Other Person
This will allow you to catch non-verbal signals and body language. This also allows you to concentrate and physically show you are listening
Show That You Want to Listen
Have open body posture, remove any large objects that are between you and your client, do not attend to other issues and listen to understand rather than to critique
Leave Your Emotions Behind
Although you are human, it is imperative that you push your own worries, fears and problems outside of your time with the client
Control Your Anger
You will not agree with everything your clients say but try not to get upset about what is being said. This may keep you from accurately perceiving what is being said, or may cause your client to put a guard up
Get Rid of Distractions
Put down any papers, pens, etc., as they may distract you and your client from being able to focus. Many people take their notes once a session ends, not during
Get the Main Points
Concentrate on the main ideas and don’t get bogged down with the illustrative materials. Examples, stories, etc. are important, but usually are not the main issue. Examine them only if they prove, support or define the main issue
Share Responsibility for Communication
As a listener, you must be active and attentive in your listening just as much as the speaker’s responsibility is to be open and truthful. You must make your client feel secure and safe enough to express their deepest thoughts and feelings
React to Ideas, Not the Person
Do not let your own reaction to your client influence your personal interpretation of what the client is saying. Their ideas may be good even if they are different than your own
Don’t Argue Mentally
Do not create a counterargument in your mind while the client is speaking. If you become preoccupied with your response, you will miss important information that the client is expressing to you
Listen for What is Not Said
Sometimes it is just as telling to determine what the person is leaving out or avoids talking about. It is okay to directly confront these omissions sometimes, as well.
- Kottler & Blau (1989) The Imperfect Therapist. Jossey-Bass.