November 29

5 Social work engagement skills to deepen rapport with clients


I remember the first time I walked into a client’s room as a student social worker.

It smelled dank, and there were bottles of alcohol in the corner.

There were pieces of trash on the table, and clothes strewn across the sofa.

The client quickly cleared the clothes so that I could take a seat.

Deep down, I was feeling uncertain and anxious. I didn’t know how best to talk to him about his struggles with alcohol.

What could I start with?

I smiled.

Social work isn’t just about the outcomes

Starting out as a social worker, you may have wanted to do some form of the following.

Make a difference.

Help clients to make a positive change.

What you will realise is that these are often about the outcomes.

But what you will come to see as you do more and more of social work, is that outcomes are often mediated through relationship.

in social work, it's the relationships between you and the client that matter
in social work, it’s the relationships between you and the client that matter

As a social worker, my principal approach is often the relationship-based approach advocated by Gillian Ruch.

Much of this requires engagement.

Engagement is tough.

How do you engage involuntary clients, whom may not like what you are saying to them?

This is a series of tips that I’ve found helpful in my own practice.

Relate them to them first as a person, then as a client

In Atul Gawande’s book, Better, he talks about how he used to see patients, as patients. But slowly, he began to see patients who came complaining of ‘illness’, but who were really just lonely and needed a chat.

Often we think about clients and their problems first before we look at them as a person.
Often we think about clients and their problems first before we look at them as a person.

Often as busy social workers, we have a packed agenda. We don’t have time to chat.

But taking time to break the ice, and to ask about things you see around them, such as:

  1. The flowers you see in their home,
  2. The football shirt they wear
  3. The weather recently

can often be good conversation starters in and of themselves. It reminds you that they aren’t just problems to be fixed, but people with lives, outside of the client-social worker relationship that you share.

For youths, spend time

My supervisor often complained that I spent too much time with the youths I work with.

This may sound ridiculous, but I would go to all efforts to get them to school. In one instance, I woke at 6am, to get to their home to wake them up.

On other instances, I would watch a movie, play at the arcade, or bring these youths to the iceskating rink, just to form a deeper relationship with them.

Is this overstepping the boundaries as a social worker?

I think not.

As social workers, I see our role as a dynamic, fluid role, that changes according to the context and client we are put in.

For those youths who had an abusive childhood, they had never known what it felt like to have a healthy role model who could show them care and concern.

I hoped that through my time spent with them, they could understand that not all adults were bad.

You may be so busy that you need to eat your sandwich in the car, but don't forget why you're even doing social work in the first place.
You may be so busy that you need to eat your sandwich in the car, but don’t forget why you’re even doing social work in the first place.

As one professor once told me,

You can be friendly, but not a friend.

This helped me to clarify my role in this young person’s life.

In the same way, in your own practice, are there instances where you can spend more time with the child?

Sometimes, this can seem like too much (uncompensated) effort, but it ultimately depends on what you’re there for as a social worker.

If it’s for the money, then you will find easier jobs.

But if its for the indelible fingerprint you will leave in each person’s life, you will find no other job quite like this.

Work the room

Professor Harry Ferguson did a great study where he personally observed social workers on home visits.

When social workers step into homes they invariably encounter the flow and flux of family life, as adults and children interact, play, eat, cry, fight, the TV is on, their mobile phones ring or ping, the dog(s) bark, growl, demand attention…

Harry Ferguson (2016): Professional helping as negotiation in motion: social work as work on the move

You will see this on many home visits. Clients may be less than ready to receive you, or may even greet you gruffly.

It may be clear that they don’t want you there, and see you as an interference to their lives.

What then can you do?

A key task … is to…bring all this movement under control so that they can create the kind of order that is needed if they are to meet their aims to interview parents, and to be able to become mobile themselves to see children on their own and in the company of their carers.

This requires movement. Your movement.

If you ever had the chance to take a step back and observe how you ‘worked’ the room as you saw a client in the home, you will realise a series of intentional steps deliberately actioned so that you could gain a better control of your surroundings.

What I’ve often found useful is these three principles.

Put aside the notepad

Whilst it’s helpful to jot down what you’re seeing, notepads and the physical act of writing can often make things more threatening. It demonstrates to the service user that you may be there for an ‘assessment’ rather than a visit.

No, it's not just about how many fancy terms you write in your notepad. It's about the relationship you form.
No, it’s not just about how many fancy terms you write in your case notes. It’s about the relationship you form.

They may start feeling more guarded.

In one of my first home visits, I took out a clipboard and started writing down everything the client said.

But my supervisor later pointed out that this disconnected me from observing the client’s emotions through his facial expressions, or even seeing the micro-movements he was making, such as a momentary twitch when I talked about something sensitive.

What might work better is for you to be entirely present in the room, observing what you see, and asking, as if you were a concerned person, rather than a social worker dispatched from the government.

Many younger social workers often worry that they may not remember everything they see or hear from their trips. Often an easy way is to take the commute back (whether in the car or on the bus), to jot down immediately what stood out for you.

This helps you remember what was significant about the home visit.

It will also help you better engage the client.

Go light

What can also help you better work the room is to leave your items in the car.

As a student social worker, I would often lug around my huge bag to home visits. Looking back, this affected how I was able to work the room, and how mobile I was.

Anchor yourself in the space

During my final year on placement, I remember a particularly memorable home visit. The first moment I walked in, a dog came rushing towards me.

At that time, there were two ways I could react. I could jump back.

Or I could embrace the dog.

I chose to rub the dog behind his ears, and then play with it.

It immediately endeared me to the family.

This was by no means an easy client. They weren’t very open to social services.

But this ‘anchoring’, familiarising myself with the dog, so that I could feel a greater sense of belonging to the home, helped.

This concept of anchoring is a concept taken from therapy. Often, when we see clients, they might share something distressing that may pull us out of our chair, and into theirs.

Babette Rothschild, the author of ‘Help for the Helper’, talks about how therapists need to ‘stay in their own chair’.

In a home visit, you can do that too.

Simply grounding yourself by feeling the soft felt on the cushion, or smelling the aromas in the home, or taking note of the colors in the painting you see may help you ground yourself in an uncomfortable home environment.

Engagement is about the relationship

Always start with the relationship
Always start with the relationship

Becoming a good social worker isn’t just about being the best at theory.

It’s about being good at practice too, particularly in terms of engagement.

That starts with relationship.


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