On Being New to Social Work

Whether your title is therapist, counselorcase 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:

Stop Talking

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 Questions

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

Becoming a social worker is a learning process. This is a great read for new social workers entering the field. Everything you need to know.Be Patient

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 upBecoming a social worker is a learning process. This is a great read for new social workers entering the field. Everything you need to know.

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.

 

Sources: 

  • Kottler & Blau (1989) The Imperfect Therapist. Jossey-Bass.
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New to Social Work? Start Here
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New to Social Work? Start Here
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Becoming a social worker is a learning process. This is a great read for new social workers entering the field. Everything you need to know.
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