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Introducing social work: a starter kit
Introducing social work: a starter kit

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5 The social work relationship

This is a photograph of a woman and a young girl reading together.
Figure 7

Social work takes place within a professional relationship with service users as well as with colleagues from a range of professional backgrounds. In recent years, the concept of ‘relationship-based social work’ which places the relationship between service users and social workers at the core of practice has gained ground among employers, academics and policymakers. A focus on the social work relationship is not new, but after a long period of procedural policies and practice (Munro, 2011) its revival has been positively received.

Wilson et al. describe relationship-based social work like this:

Relationship-based practice involves practitioners developing and sustaining supportive professional relationships in unique, complex and challenging situations. An important but not necessarily explicit implication arising from this model is the need to reconceptualise not only the nature and behaviour of service users but also of professionals. This model places equal importance … on the unique and complex nature of professionals and the rational and emotional dimensions of their behaviours. This is often referred to in social work literature as the professional ‘use of self’. As a social worker one of the biggest challenges you will face is being able to simultaneously focus in professional encounters on what is happening for the service user and what is happening to you. By developing this ability to understand holistically the service user’s and your own responses to a specific situation you will ensure you are acting in the service user’s best interests.

(Wilson et al., 2011, p. 9)

The use of self involves acknowledging your own emotions, values, identity and experiences, as a resource to help you interact emphatically with a service user’s situation. Ruch et al. (2010, p. 48) argue that because a large proportion of the work of social workers involves experiencing a range of emotions which many others do not experience at work, or do not have to engage with and work with, there is also the additional factor for social workers that they also have to ‘regard [these emotions] as material, as data – they are part of what is available for us to work with’.

Bernard Moss (2015) suggests the following, for what professional people-workers are not:

  • [not] a friend to the other person – you will seek to be friendly towards them, but a friend often offers a far more comprehensive relationship than you can.
  • [not] always and instantly available – you have responsibilities to other service users, clients or patients, as well as to other aspects of your organisation’s work. You may sometimes decide to ‘drop everything’ to respond to a particular crisis with someone, but normally you will work within a system of mutually agreed appointments.
  • [not] offering general ‘chat’ sessions – there will always be a clear reason for meeting in the first place, a clear set of objectives to work towards and a clear understanding of when the relationship needs to end.
  • [not] offering an open-ended relationship – your time with the person will be focused on agreed areas of work, and for an agreed length of time. In fact, in most cases, the end of the relationship will be in sight at the beginning.
  • [not] physically close to the other person – we are much more aware these days of the difficult and at times compromising risks of physical contact between people-workers and those whom they are seeking to help. Physical contact can be misunderstood; people can be exploited when a sexual relationship develops between the worker and the other person. However mutually acceptable this may seem at the time, in fact it always constitutes a breach of the boundary of the professional relationship, and therefore is always wrong.

On the contrary, Moss suggests, the most important aspects of establishing a professional relationship are:

  • [to] always be clear yourself and with the other person about why you are meeting and what you need to achieve,
  • [to] always establish clear boundaries, so that each of you knows what is and is not acceptable.
  • [to] always be clear that you are representing your agency, and that you are accountable to your manager for the work you do; explain that this may sometimes involve another colleague sharing in the work with you, or doing something on your behalf, or working with the person instead of you.
  • [to] always be clear that the reward you will receive for your work will be in terms of satisfaction of a job well done. Receiving gifts from grateful service users should normally be tactfully declined – offers of money must always be refused.
  • [to consider that] sometimes, however, you may feel that to refuse a modest gift of appreciation, such as a bunch of flowers or a small box of chocolates, would cause unnecessary hurt. This is a matter of professional judgement, of course, but if you do decide to accept, say that you will take the gift back to your office for other colleagues to enjoy too. On your return, make a written note on the file and copy it to your manager explaining what has been given to you, and that this has been left at the office for general, rather than your own personal, enjoyment. Do check with your manager, however, about the team or agency policy on such matters, as this can avoid embarrassment or more serious repercussions (such as allegations of accepting bribes).

Sympathy alone does not necessarily include a shared understanding. Empathy, however, is like ‘standing in someone else’s shoes’, and requires that you demonstrate that you have understood accurately.