April 12

3 Lessons from SWSD 2018 Conference


I went for a social work conference in Dublin in 2018. I think it’s quite easy to spend $500 on a conference and wonder what all that was for.

SWSD 2018 is a conference that brings together social workers from all around the world for a week of presentations.

Personally, I found it hard to follow many of the academic presentations, many of which were dull and boring. But my conversations with practitioners stayed deeply with me, and led me to see another side to social work. Here, I share three lessons I gleaned from my time there.

First and foremost, focus on being, not doing.

Being with someone in the midst of their pain, instead of focusing on what I could do for them was a deep revelation. Throughout my short career, I think there has been an excessive focus on – what is your problem, and what can I do to alleviate your suffering? Instead, I realised that sometimes, being with someone was more helpful than anything else you could do for them. A practitioner shared with me how feeling those emotions for your service user, could be deeply cathartic for them. In social work, there is a heavy emphasis on hiding our tears. But this practitioner shared that showing those emotions could unlock the emotional barriers that existed for the service user.

Secondly, use silence.

Many of us find silence uncomfortable. But silence can provide a unique space to contemplate. It can also provide the key to opening the floodgates of expression. When we refuse to interrupt a service user’s processing of his/her emotions with our questions, we illustrate to them: I am here with you, walking with you, regardless of the pain you are having. I am willing to share that pain. Take your time. There is no rush. Your emotions matter.

Lastly, actions speak louder than words.

I had the privilege to meet Maria Turda, a social worker who currently works in a refugee camp in Uganda. For me, she epitomised moving to the place of need. During the conference, I met many who spoke about enticing concepts. But I wondered if any of them, me included, would be brave enough to move from our place of comfort into places of real need. Where dying whilst practising is a reality. It made me reflect: have I been guilty of taking the easy way out? Have I pushed myself way beyond my boundaries?

I want to end with a quote shared by Mary Robinson, the first female President of Ireland and the keynote speaker during the opening ceremony.

 It may seem daunting, but I am a prisoner of hope. We are more connected than ever before, we have more knowledge, and there are solutions if we work together. What unites us is our common humanity.”

Desmond Tutu


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