Social work continues to develop and grow as a profession, often with new and increasing demands and skills to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in society (Rogers, Whitaker, Edmondson, & Peach, 2020).
However, while the context in which social work operates remains in constant change, one essential element remains the same: “social work is located within some of the most complex problems and perplexing areas of human experience” (Trevithick, 2005, p. 1).
This article explores the qualities and skills required to form a positive service user–social worker relationship as a foundation for further work and to remove obstacles to positive change.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.
This Article Contains:
- What Qualities Make a Good Social Worker?
- 25+ Skills Needed by Every Social Worker
- 10 Key Clinical Skills to Put Into Practice
- Core Ethical Values: 3 Examples
- 2 Best Techniques of Effective Practitioners
- Top 3 Books for Developing Your Skills
- PositivePsychology.com’s Helpful Resources
- A Take-Home Message
What Qualities Make a Good Social Worker?
Social workers are dedicated to helping and improving the lives of others, particularly those in vulnerable groups.
Making a timely and appropriate difference requires some essential qualities; some we are born with, and others we can learn, including (Body, n.d.; Walden University, n.d.):
With many clients in a vulnerable state and potentially in crisis or distress, it is important to show empathy and imagine yourself in their situation.
Many cases will be complex, involving initially unclear goals. A patient social worker remains focused and able to uncover how a client who is less able to communicate can be helped.
Trust is essential. It has to be earned through dependability and honest, open communication teamed with unconditional support.
A potentially large caseload of clients in complicated situations requires well-organized time management, note taking, and file management. Good organization skills will reduce stress and help deliver what is needed while remaining focused.
The ability to remain attentive to the client’s needs and listen intently to their problems is essential. Excellent communication skills involve clearly conveying how you can help and observing verbal and nonverbal communication.
Social workers witness the most vulnerable people in society requiring desperate help. However, while remaining empathetic, it is crucial to stay impartial and make appropriate and informed decisions.
Serving people in complicated relationships and environments requires patience and persistence. Setbacks are inevitable. The persistent social worker remains focused, sets an example, and tries alternative approaches.
No two days are the same in social work. Problems are frequently unexpected and do not follow a typical 9-to-5 schedule. Solving difficult situations will often involve dealing with other agencies and supporting families in dire need outside regular hours.
To avoid burnout, social workers will need to learn coping mechanisms and know when to say ‘no.’ Resilience helps to bounce back from challenging and emotionally draining days to face the next client and tomorrow.
Social work can be highly satisfying and rewarding. Helping people who need it the most requires individuals to learn new skills and be motivated to be their best. While maintaining self-care, a driven social worker commits to providing the best service to their clients.
Social work is underpinned by psychological and sociological theories and models that support professionals in their care and service to others. Skills can be learned to identify and support clients’ needs and develop the above qualities (Davies, 2013; Rogers et al., 2020).
25+ Skills Needed by Every Social Worker
Micro and macro social care practices originated in the early 1900s with Mary Richmond (1917) and Jane Addams (1912).
While they saw micro and macro skills as “two sides of the same social work coin,” they could not have imagined how in the 100 years that followed, specialties have dominated the profession (Austin, Anthony, Knee, & Mathias, 2016).
Micro practice is dominated by a focus on specific disciplines such as children, adolescents, families, aging populations, and mental health. Macro practice focuses on areas such as community, organizations, and policy (Austin et al., 2016).
More recently, some recognize that while micro and macro practices have different focuses, there are benefits to be found where the two inform one another (Austin et al., 2016).
Micro skills within social work
Micro social work practice is a problem-solving process, working with individuals, groups, and families to maintain “a sensitivity to social diversity as well as the promotion of social economic justice” (Austin et al., 2016, p. 273).
Micro practice can be split into personal, interpersonal, and group skills. Their use depends on clients and context, and include the following (modified from Austin et al., 2016).
Foundation micro skills
- Establish and build rapport while interviewing clients using “verbal and nonverbal behavior, eye contact, active listening, facial expressions, body positioning, empathic responses, clarification, encouragement, and rephrasing” (Austin et al., 2016, p. 273).
- Demonstrate professional awareness, use of self, and the importance of professional boundaries.
- Address diversity issues, and acquire and use cultural competence to promote social and economic justice within a context of privilege.
- Take into account values and ethics in micro practice decision making.
- Understand and use multiple stages of treatment, including beginning, working phases, and termination process.
- Gain and use effective problem-solving strategies to promote client self-determination and empowerment.
- Engage individuals, couples, families, and groups in critical thinking related to theory and practice.
Advanced micro skills
- Link assessment to intervention decision making.
- Plan and evaluate interventions.
- Use the appropriate generalist intervention model or specific treatment models (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, etc.).
- Apply knowledge and diagnostic criteria.
- “Engage in a critical examination of diagnostic models and attention to strengths, competencies, resilient development, and the importance of context” (Austin et al., 2016, p. 273).
- Understand the role of medication and neurobiology.
- Show an understanding of the patient’s rights and recovery models.
- Learn the appropriate leadership skills for treatment, psychoeducational, and task groups.
- Apply case management and resource development skills.
- Engage and communicate effectively with diverse and vulnerable populations.
Many of these micro skills inform macro practice, “particularly when it comes to promoting wide-ranging participation and attending to and recording information” (Austin et al., 2016, p. 274).
Macro skills within social work
Several macro skill domains (community practice, management practice, and policy practice) informed by macro sociology, organizational psychology, political science, and economics have now developed to the degree where they have their own work journals (Austin et al., 2016).
Each of the domains is complex and extensive but can be represented by the following examples (modified from Austin et al., 2016).
Community and policy practice domains
Social workers must demonstrate skills in policy analysis, case-based and systems advocacy, presentation skills, and relating policy practice to the management of human service organizations, summarized as the ability to (Austin et al., 2016):
- Organize services, programs, and community groups.
- Plan, monitor, and evaluate community development and human service programs.
- Collaborate with nonprofit, public, and private organizations and community interest groups.
- Practice advocacy, policy practice, social justice, and human rights.
Human service management
Social workers must have awareness and skills in the leadership and administration of organizations that support services for people and communities, including being able to (modified from Austin et al., 2016):
- Lead through engagement with key stakeholders and organizational vision while directing innovative change.
- Manage resources (human, financial, and information).
- Manage strategy through designing programs and implementing strategic planning.
- Maintain and build relationships with multiple agencies while collaborating with communities.
Crossover skills (micro and macro) within social work
“[M]icro and macro practitioners share a common set of crossover skills that are highly valued within organizations and across multiple professional contexts” (Austin et al., 2016, p. 271).
While the following micro and macro skills are often viewed in isolation, they routinely inform one another to benefit the social worker’s practice and clients (modified from Austin et al., 2016).
Key skills — Self-awareness, stress management, and problem solving are vital for recognizing and managing situations that lead to negative emotions. They are equally essential for both micro and macro practitioners.
Self-awareness is crucial to managing the stress of others and oneself effectively.
Key skills — Written and verbal communication skills and the abilities to influence, motivate others, and manage conflict are required for:
- Performing assessments, creating service plans, teaching new behaviors and skills, and monitoring progress.
- Working within or managing multidisciplinary teams, writing reports, developing service programs, writing grant proposals, and evaluating organizational policies and procedures.
Negotiating conflicts while motivating takes a great deal of skill.
Key skills — Learning how to empower others, delegate, build teams, lead, and manage change is crucial.
The above skills are crucial to “manage clients, caseloads, programs, and diverse groups of people in differing contexts” and are relied on by micro and macro practitioners (Austin et al., 2016, p. 272).
10 Key Clinical Skills to Put Into Practice
Many skills underpin “a commitment to humane, relationship-based practice” and are essential to good social work (Rogers et al., 2020, p. 9). Relationship-based practice is a person-centered perspective that applies some of the most fundamental values in social work, such as respect and empathy.
The following is a summary of several of the clinical skills that encourage “reflexivity and the ‘use of self’ in the application of social work skills and knowledge” (Rogers et al., 2020, p. 9). They are closely aligned with anti-oppressive practice and social justice.
1. Person-centered communication
Adapting communication to the uniqueness of the individual and their communication style. The client may not be neurotypical, may have a physical impairment, or may be experiencing mental distress.
2. Active listening skills
Help ensure that “what a person is trying to say is fully communicated and accurately received and understood by the listener” (Rogers, 2020c, p. 23). The skill requires a high degree of self-awareness and an attunement to the feelings and thoughts of the other person.
3. Communicating with children
It is vital to understand children beyond their words. Awareness of child development is necessary to reflect on how they say things, how they behave, and their ability to communicate.
4. Emotionally intelligent social work
“Emotional intelligence (EI) depicts our ability to recognize our own emotions and those of others” (Peach, 2020, p. 43). While intelligence and emotion are highly complex subjects, EI is essential to social workers’ ability to understand themselves and others.
5. Developing empathic skills
While also a desirable trait, empathy skills can be learned. They involve the ability to perceive others’ needs and reflect on their experiences.
6. Reflection and reflexivity
Reflective practice helps social workers to consider themselves and their actions, judgments, and thoughts when planning interventions. It encourages social workers to step back and think over an experience.
7. Understanding values, ethics, and human rights
All these are fundamental to social work practice. They are necessary to balance conflicting rights and responsibilities, and to navigate unclear practice paths.
8. Valuing difference and diversity
Social identity is composed of multiple characteristics, including age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and (dis)ability. It is vital for social workers to be both nonjudgmental and respectful of differences.
9. Resilience and self-care
Building and promoting self-care and resilience benefit social workers and their service users. Professional resilience helps overcome daily challenges and build a long and enjoyable career.
10. Time management
While an essential quality, it is also a teachable skill. Social workers typically have “too little time in the day to complete their work” (Murphy, 2020, p. 109). As a result, they must find ways to allocate the right amount of time to the tasks they face.
The above list is not exhaustive, but combined with the qualities, essential skills, and best techniques listed elsewhere in the article, they provide reasonable oversight of what is needed for a career as a social worker.
Core Ethical Values: 3 Examples
Ethics are crucial to social work, as with all other caring professions.
They come from recognizing being in a position of power, awareness of personal responsibility, and a desire to respect service users (Davies, 2013).
The U.S. National Association of Social Workers provides a code of ethics, ethical principles, and ethical standards that reflect the uniqueness of the social work profession.
While there are many aspects to ethical values, it is vital to remain mindful of oppression, its diversity, and how it develops from the interaction of personal prejudice, cultural beliefs, and broader social and structural factors (Rogers et al., 2020).
These include, for example:
- Personal ways to either experience or promote oppression, such as derogatory language or mistreatment resulting from personal characteristics.
- Cultural oppression, such as offensive jokes or language, social exclusion, and stigma.
- Misuse of power in institutional systems that lead to discrimination and inequality in society, including education, health, social care, and employment.
2 Best Techniques of Effective Practitioners
Skilled social workers practice many techniques. The following two are highly valued in serving clients.
While verbal communication is an important way to gather data, assessment often begins with observation (Rogers, 2020a).
When visiting a service user’s residence or school, consider the following (particularly when children are involved):
- What can you smell? Does the child or accommodation smell clean?
- What can you see? Does the place look tidy? Are there toys and books?
- What can you feel? Does the child feel underweight when you pick them up?
While some social workers have become reluctant to touch children for fear of misinterpretation or allegations, contact can help gather additional information and convey reassurance (Rogers, 2020a).
Interviewing is an essential skill in social work. Social workers can learn techniques to improve information gathering through the use of multiple question types that can be tailored and used across many situations, including (Rogers, 2020b):
- Open questions – Can help the service user feel listened to.
- Closed questions – Useful when only a short answer is required to confirm yes or no.
- Indirect questions – It can be helpful to phrase questions as sentences, providing flexibility in the length or type of response.
- Probing questions – Elicit more concrete answers or greater detail.
- Hypothetical questions – Valuable for encouraging the client to think positively about a possible future.
No single question type should dominate. It is better to use a range of questions to encourage a natural conversation, rather than an interrogation.
Top 3 Books for Developing Your Skills
Many books can help students and practicing social workers hone and revisit their skills.
We have selected three of our favorites.
1. Generalist Social Work Practice – Janice Gasker
This excellent book provides the reader with the knowledge required to practice social work using micro and macro skills.
Janice Gasker explores the latest standards and guidance and shares lessons from her vast experience in the field of social work.
While a practice book, it also offers insight into the entire social work education curriculum.
Find the book on Amazon.
2. Developing Skills and Knowledge for Social Work Practice – Michaela Rogers, Dawn Whitaker, David Edmonson, and Donna Peach
This highly practical guide to social work practice provides the reader with an introduction to social work theories and everything needed to apply them in real-life practice.
The accompanying website offers access to templates and how-to guides.
Find the book on Amazon.
3. Essentials of Social Work Practice: A Concise Guide to Knowledge and Skill Development – Kathleen Cox
Kathleen Cox explores the concepts, tools, and techniques essential to running a social work practice.
Straightforward narrative and dialogues take the reader through theory, the application of skills, and self-care strategies to facilitate coping.
Find the book on Amazon.
PositivePsychology.com’s Helpful Resources
Looking to strengthen your skills as a social worker? Check out the following tools, resources, and self-assessments.
- Levels of Validation
Listening and validation are valuable skills in social work, where it is important to understand the issues faced by the client. This short self-assessment helps social workers and other helping professionals consider the level at which they typically validate the feelings and experiences of their clients, ranging from mindfully listening to radical genuineness.
- Active Constructive Responding
Similarly, this handout presents a 2×2 matrix of communication styles ranging from destructive to constructive and passive to active, highlighting the differences between each with examples.
- Social Problem Solving: Brainstorming
This worksheet helps clients and practitioners define a social problem clearly and conduct an initial brainstorming of possible solutions.
- Social Problem Solving: End in Mind
This worksheet helps clients and practitioners think flexibly about problems to be solved by working backward with an end goal in mind.
- Imagining Solutions to Social Problems
This worksheet invites clients to generate many possible solutions to a current interpersonal problem and imagine how applying solutions to that problem might look.
- 17 Positive Psychology Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, this signature collection contains 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.
A Take-Home Message
Social workers strive to help others and improve the lives of the most vulnerable populations. As a result, social work and society remain engaged in an intense, changing relationship, where each seeks to influence the other (Davies, 2013).
Pulled between the powerful and the excluded, social workers have the difficult task of communicating with both to ensure the client’s needs are met.
Therefore, it is essential to provide social workers with the training and skills necessary to care for the various populations seeking help, including children, the elderly, families, the displaced, and those with mental health issues.
While divergent for some years, the potential for micro and macro skills to work more closely together brings increased support for people and communities.
The skills discussed within the article provide support for relationship-based practice that focuses on respect and empathy, placing service users at the center of communication and focus within social work.
Explore the qualities and skills captured within this article and review the additional reading to develop your understanding of the techniques available to the modern social worker.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
- Addams, J. (1912). Twenty years at Hull-House with autobiographical notes. Macmillan.
- Austin, M. J., Anthony, E. K., Knee, R. T., & Mathias, J. (2016). Revisiting the relationship between micro and macro social work practice. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 97(4), 270–277.
- Body, A. (n.d.). The ten essential traits of successful social workers. SocialWorkDegree.net Retrieved April 20, 2021, from https://www.socialworkdegree.net/traits-of-successful-social-workers/
- Cox, K. F. (2019). Essentials of social work practice: A concise guide to knowledge and skill development. Cognella Academic.
- Davies, M. (2013). The Blackwell companion to social work. Wiley Blackwell.
- Gasker, J. A. (2018). Generalist social work practice. SAGE.
- Murphy, C. (2020). Time management. In M. Rogers, D. Whitaker, D. Edmondson, & D. Peach (Authors), Developing skills & knowledge for social work practice. SAGE.
- Peach, D. (2020). Emotionally intelligent social work. In M. Rogers, D. Whitaker, D. Edmondson, & D. Peach (Authors), Developing skills & knowledge for social work practice. SAGE.
- Richmond, M. (1917). Social diagnosis. Russell Sage Foundation.
- Rogers, M. (2020a). Assessment skills. In M. Rogers, D. Whitaker, D. Edmondson, & D. Peach (Authors), Developing skills & knowledge for social work practice. SAGE.
- Rogers, M. (2020b). Interviewing skills. In M. Rogers, D. Whitaker, D. Edmondson, & D. Peach (Authors), Developing skills & knowledge for social work practice. SAGE.
- Rogers, M. (2020c). Active listening skills. In M. Rogers, D. Whitaker, D. Edmondson, & D. Peach (Authors), Developing skills & knowledge for social work practice. SAGE.
- Rogers, M., Whitaker, D., Edmondson, D., & Peach, D. (2020). Developing skills & knowledge for social work practice. SAGE.
- Trevithick, P. (2005). Social work skills: A practice handbook. OUP.
- Walden University. (n.d.). What qualities make a good social worker? Retrieved April 20, 2021, from https://www.waldenu.edu/online-masters-programs/master-of-social-work/resource/what-qualities-make-a-good-social-worker