Emotional Skills In Social Work Practice
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Published: Mon, 24 Apr 2017
Social Work Practice, a powerful modern day skill for social empowerment of the disadvantaged and excluded segments of society, is an occupation of enormous scope and an immensely stressful activity (Burgess & Taylor, 2004).
Educated and trained in social work theory and practice, these practitioners are required to constantly interact, assess and understand situations, as well engage in various actions aimed at providing appropriate relief and succour to their disadvantaged clients (Burgess & Taylor, 2004). This calls for significant knowledge of the tenets of social work practice. However, social workers in the UK function in an increasingly management oriented setting which is more organisational and administrative, with an emphasis on private public participation, accountability and coordination (Burgess & Taylor, 2004, P 7 to 81). Increasing competition between social work providers, business-oriented standards for performance assessment, mounting work pressures and the need to micro manage and carefully control the distribution of services often lead to personal dilemmas, contradictory emotions and disorientation (Burgess & Taylor, 2004, P 7 to 81).
Significant failures in social work have brought to the fore various challenges facing social workers in processing and comprehending their own emotions and actions, as well as those of others (Perez-Koenig & Rock, 2001, P 25 to110). Modern day behavioural experts and psychologists feel that much of the reasons behind such failures lie in the inadequacies of traditionally followed training approaches, which deal primarily with the inculcation of practical and theoretical competencies and ignore broader and more holistic emotional issues (Perez-Koenig & Rock, 2001, P 25 to110). Adequate attention to emotional issues in the training and development of social workers is felt to be critically important for (a) aligning the emotional dimensions of social work, which, while essential, is rendered invisible, with the natural caring roles of social workers (b) providing supportive agendas for individual and professional development (c) providing processes to define the emotional constituent of social work practice that is obliterated by the increase of managerial practices in the area, (d) tackling the disruptive power of emotions on thought, (e) creating an effective balance between rational and emotional reactions for making of sensible and wise decisions, and (f) bridging cultural differences (Turner, 2005).
Whilst the origins of Emotional Intelligence (EI) can be traced back to the works of Darwin, its modern day emergence, as a serious and relevant issue for study and application in various areas of work that involve people, arose first with the work of Robert Maslow in 1960, followed by those of John Mayer and Peter Salovey in 1989. Peter Salovey described EI as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions” (Nelson & Others, 2007, P 30).
The concept of EI received a boost with the work of the psychologist Daniel Goleman, who popularised it, first with his 1995 book “Emotional intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ” and thereafter through constant research and work on the subject (Nelson & Others, 2007, P 30). Goleman has developed a number of EI competencies in two specific areas of EI, personal competence and social competence, and has encouraged the inclusion of EI in the education and training module of social work (Nelson & Others, 2007, P 30).
This essay deals with the various ramifications of EI in social work and its use and application for fresh entrants, educated and trained in the area, principally in three specific disciplines; counselling, conflict management and social work practice,
2. EI in Counselling
New entrants in the area of social work counselling will be required to help people of various ages from different segments of society to confront and overcome a diverse range of problems and challenges (Payne & Shardlow, 2002, P122 to 198).
Counsellors aim to provide people with the guidance and support they require to alter their lives and move forward in a constructive manner. Social work counselling can loosely be segregated into (a) counselling and therapy (assisting clients with different emotional problems) (b) providing advice and information in areas related to jobs, employment choices, welfare, rights, debt, etc. (c) social and community care, (helping with providing of support to families, young and old people, and those without homes or with disabilities) and (d) charities and other voluntary organisations (providing support to workers to collect funds and organise volunteers in order to continue their operations (Payne & Shardlow, 2002, P122 to 198).
Recent years have seen an increasing conflict between the managerial and administrative functions of social workers and their requirement to meet individuals at the time of their need, give them respect, battle disadvantages and unfairness, construct relationships that resolve problems, and support wellbeing (Payne & Shardlow, 2002, P122 to 198). People in need of counselling have time and again requested to be treated with dignity and respect, to be patiently listened to and helped (Payne & Shardlow, 2002, P122 to 198). Effective counselling requires social workers to listen carefully, react effectively and build relationships with service users, colleagues and others (Payne & Shardlow, 2002, P122 to 198).
Goleman’s four core competencies, namely self awareness, self management, social awareness, and relationship management can be of immense help to new counsellors by enabling them to understand personal emotions and their effect on other people, as well as by developing the ability to control strong emotions that can upset service users (Druskat & Others, 2006, P 72 to 145). Inculcation of social awareness enables new counsellors to recognise the emotional condition of their clients, bridge cultural and social distances and understand the challenges and difficulties experienced by service users (Druskat & Others, 2006, P 72 to 145). Relationship management on the other hand equips counsellors to converse with service users, persuades them to listen to and understand the suggestions of the counsellor, and build strong bonds (Druskat & Others, 2006, P 72 to 145).
The principles of client centred therapy, popularised by Carl Rogers, require counsellors to refrain from unsettling clients with queries, evaluations, judgments, and explanations, but to focus upon providing secure, non-judgemental and caring environments, where the service users can control counselling sessions, decide what is discussed, and find their individual solutions to existing problems without requiring the counsellors to fix the course of therapy (Mulhauser, G, (2009, P 1). Carl Rogers based his framework on the belief that individuals become progressively more truthful and dependable once they realise that their subjective understanding is appreciated and accepted. Roger’s core conditions, better known as CUE, consist of Congruence, Unconditional Positive Regard, and Empathy (Mulhauser, G, (2009, P 1).
These three conditions are of extreme importance in client-centred counselling and new counsellors need to inculcate a deep understanding of them in order to provide requisite conditions for clients who have a strong desire to explore their feelings and who treasure personal responsibility. Such an approach may however be unsuitable for clients who wish to be provided with extensive advice, diagnosis of problems and analysis of their problems (Mulhauser, G, (2009, P 1).
“Clients who would like to address specific psychological habits or patterns of thinking may find some variation in the helpfulness of the person-centred approach, as the individual therapeutic styles of person-centred counsellors vary widely, and some will feel more able than others to engage directly with these types of concerns.” (Mulhauser, 2009, P 1)
Whilst newly inducted counsellors need to be careful about the requirement of their clients, the use of emotional skills is often necessary and needs to be fully inculcated by counsellors.
3. EI in Conflict Management
Social workers, especially those taking up positions in social work organisations, understand that their work will often deal with conflict and that too in various roles, as advocates, negotiators and mediators (Turner, 2005, P136 to 217).
Social work education comprises of a wide range of perspectives, (like environmental, radical and feminist), which in turn are based upon dissimilar premises regarding human relationships (Turner, 2005, P136 to 217). Social work practice requires different approaches from different perspectives in case of intervention for resolution or management of situations of conflict (Turner, 2005, P136 to 217). Examples of such situations (in terms of the above perspectives) could include interface between individuals and their social environments, confronting patriarchy, or challenging discrimination and oppression against a wide range of groups, including women, lesbians, gays and ethnic minorities (Turner, 2005, P136 to 217).
Conflict resolution training for social workers provides numerous principles for successful conflict resolution, like (a) the need for different responses for different conflicts, (b) the availability of different responses like avoidance, accommodation, competition, compromise or collaboration for bringing about solutions, (c) the need of people to feel secure from physical or emotional hazards, (d) the availability of various skills for conflict resolution skills like refraining, active listening, and identification of underlying interests, and (e) the need to balance emotions with rationality (Turner, 2005, P136 to 217).
Social workers are undoubtedly aware of the lack of emotional intelligence being the main cause of conflict (Lenaghan & Others, 2006, P 76+). Researchers in EI also argue that a lack of emotional intelligence is one of the leading causes of conflict in our society (Turner, 2005, P136 to 217). Contemporary training tools make significant use of Goldman’s principles on EI, particularly self-confidence, emotional self-control, transparency, empathy, motivation and relationship management (Turner, 2005, P136 to 217). “Goleman’s work makes a valuable contribution to conflict management theory and training, and a compelling case for the importance of emotion in what we believe to be ‘rational’ decision-making processes” (Bjerknes HYPERLINK “http://www.mediate.com/articles/bjerknes.cfm#bio”&HYPERLINK “http://www.mediate.com/articles/bjerknes.cfm#bio” Paranica, 2002, P1).
Goleman’s theories constructively help social workers understand the important role of emotion in life and the reliance placed upon emotional input for making decisions and prioritisation of information. This greatly helps in minimising conflict in personal and working life (Bjerknes HYPERLINK “http://www.mediate.com/articles/bjerknes.cfm#bio”&HYPERLINK “http://www.mediate.com/articles/bjerknes.cfm#bio” Paranica, 2002, P1).
“Solid training that focuses on developing awareness about our strengths and weaknesses as mediators, facilitators and trainers is crucial to our development as culturally competent process workers, and is crucial in our pursuit to help clients achieve their potential. Openness to learning and reflecting about our role, about who we are, and about how we affect others is essential and will lead us down the path to success in life.” (Bjerknes HYPERLINK “http://www.mediate.com/articles/bjerknes.cfm#bio”&HYPERLINK “http://www.mediate.com/articles/bjerknes.cfm#bio” Paranica, 2002, P1)
4. EI in Social Work Practice
Social Work practitioners are required to interact with service users, social workers and other participants of the social care system like medical practitioners, teachers and members of local authorities (Burgess & Taylor, 2004, P 101 to 172). With the interaction between social workers and service users being the focal point of social work practice, the relationship between social worker and service user involves perception on the part of the practitioner, appreciation of the emotions of the client and usage of perceptions to handle situations and achieve efficiency in delivery of social care (Burgess & Taylor, 2004, P 101 to 172).
Such work demands a high degree of emotional intelligence (Burgess & Taylor, 2004, P 101 to 172). Social work in the present context does not extend only to the assessment and fulfilment of perceived social needs (Burgess & Taylor, 2004, P 101 to 172), but also to the realisation of and respect for the service users’ goals, choices, and preferences and the use of interdisciplinary resources available with the social worker to meet their emotional, social, physical and economic needs.
Social workers need to engage in active introspection of events, try to obtain a clear psychological understanding of the challenges and needs of service users and inculcate genuine concern for the economically and socially disadvantaged and excluded (Burgess & Taylor, 2004, P 101 to 172). Whilst such perceptions cannot be generalised because of the different needs of different people, the inculcation of empathy and service orientation facilitates the development of necessary perspectives and perceptions (Burgess & Taylor, 2004, P 101 to 172).
Social workers entering practice should recognise that they need to confront their own emotions as well as those of their service users, especially so in cases where the issues are extremely challenging and difficult to resolve. Goleman identifies five EQ domains as (a) knowledge of own, (b) management of own emotions, (c) motivating oneself, (d) recognising and understanding emotions of other people, and (e) management of relationships, i.e. the management of emotions of other people (Druskat & Others, 2006, P 152 to 189).
Experts also agree that EI, along with reflective ability enables social workers to increase their resilience to stress (Druskat & Others, 2006, P 152 to 189). Self awareness and self management competencies help social workers to progressively develop self confidence, transparency, and optimism (Druskat & Others, 2006, P 152 to 189). Social awareness and relationship management on the other hand allow them to engage positively with their clients as well as with other participants in the social care structure (Druskat & Others, 2006, P 152 to 189). It is unfortunate that current research reports still underline the need for social workers to have more empathy for their clients.
“They found that ‘being listened to and understood’ was crucial for the carers. ‘Staff who took time to ask questions and hear complex and long stories of how the family were coping was seen as the most helpful’. These findings confirm previous ones and it is of great concern that people using services are still identifying that only some social workers are proficient in such crucial and basic skills.” (Sedan, 2005, P 7)
It is being constantly proved that the difference between the better social workers and the others can be narrowed down to skills like listening, non-critical acceptance, avoidance of moralistic or judgemental attitudes and other competencies directly related to EI.
New social workers need to heed such findings and focus strongly on improving their EI and E skills.
The principles of EI, when they were first elaborated by Mayor and Salovey raised significant interest in a world that was becoming increasingly competitive and insensitive; the possibility of people being able to adopt techniques and behaviours to work with greater cooperation, harmony and productivity was welcomed with enthusiasm. The path breaking work on the subject by Goleman in following years and the adoption of the tenets of EI in various areas of human endeavour, more noticeably in social work and in the HR functions of business firms, have resulted in its increasing popularity and application.
As is evident, EI can be applied in numerous areas by social work practitioners; it is an extremely useful skill and can be used productively in counselling, conflict management and various other areas of social work practice. Whilst interest in the area of human needs and actualisation has increased since the publication of Maslow’s theories, the evolution of specific theory on the issue has added a new dimension to the area by developing methods for people to increase their E skills and improve the quality and productivity of their working and personal lives.
Recent entrants to social work however need to realise that E skills and EI can increase only with constant inculcation and application of its principles and bare knowledge of theoretical tenets will not suffice in improving their EI competencies. With the tools and methods of improving EI still in the primary stages development, much more needs to be done to popularise the issue and encourage its application in various areas of social work.
The Boston EI questionnaire provides a good method of assessing personal EI, which is in consonance with the Five Step Method for improvement of emotional quotient (Druskat & Others, 2006, P 225). Younger social workers would be well advised to sincerely take the test and constantly improve their EI.
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