December 18

How to improve your social work interviewing

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Think about social work interviewing… and your mind might hark back to the scenes in CSI Miami.

Sitting across the table with a client.

You’re nursing your cup of coffee.

Your client is looking dishevelled, dirty, and tired.

Both of you just want to get over it.

Get the answers, and get over it.

Really?!

Is this social work interviewing?

Before you go into the skills for social work interviewing, it might be better to understand what social work interviewing even is.

What is social work interviewing?

When do you do social work interviewing?

There are many different instances of social work interviewing.

From my experience, there are two main types of situations when social work interviewing will be necessary.

Why interview?

But before we go into that, you might wonder:

Why interview?

Great question.

I didn’t know why too.

When I first started my social work degree, I thought social work was simple.

Talk to someone. Listen to them. Reply them.

But interview them?

No way!

That sounds way too formal!

But then one day, I realised why.

We were in a lecture. It was the last lecture of the term before we broke for Christmas.

Our professor was teaching us how to write essays.

As usual, my hand was in the air. Yes, I was that student – that smart-alecky, hands in the air, Hermonie Granger who always asked questions.

How do you write a better answer?

My professor pauses for a moment.

I thought to myself,

“Ha! This question stumped him!”

Then he smiles, saying,

It’s not the answer that matters.

It’s the question.

It’s the question.

That was when I began to appreciate the power of questions in social work. You might think that social work is about giving the best advice or suggestions to people in need.

But sometimes, it’s not about the answer, isn’t it?

You can give the wisest answer. Yet you realise that it doesn’t seem to change anything.

Think of social work interviewing as a toolkit of questions that helps you to probe more deeply into where you want the client to be.

Who do you interview?

Involuntary clients

What is an involuntary client?

This means that the client has not come to you to seek help because he or she wants to. Instead, the client has been forced to.

It might be because of a court order. Or someone has referred them. Or it might be part of a probation programme.

Whatever it is, the client doesn’t want to be there. The client doesn’t want to talk to you.

It might also be a concern that a member of the public has raised regarding the client’s behavior. In cases involving child abuse or vulnerable adult abuse, social work interviewing skills will be required to probe into the concerns that are raised.

With these clients, social work interviewing helps you to draw out the information you need to make an assessment. Or to determine if there are interventions needed on your part.

Voluntary clients

With voluntary clients, the client wants some help from you, the social worker. As the social worker, your assessment and interviewing would determine what kind of help the client needs.

How do you interview?

Before even thinking about how to improve your interview skills, it is useful to know how you even interview someone. This can be for an assessment.

Or a counselling session.

Just before that…

But take the time to record yourself as you have a social work interview with a client.

You might be surprised at what you see.

How do you interview better?

Know where you are.

The first step towards improving is to know where you are now.

As you review that video, ask for your supervisor to review it with you.

As you look at that video, look at these 3 aspects.

As Albert Mehrabian showed in his landmark study, only 7% of our message’s impact is communicated through the words we say.

Yes, 7%!

You didn’t see that wrong.

Therefore, in social work interviewing, it’s not only the content in the questions you ask. But it’s also about how you ask.

Verbal

Observe the words you use as you ask. What kind of words do you use? More importantly, are they suited to the listener?

As speaker Julian Treasure loves saying,

We don’t speak into a vacuum.

We speak into a listening.

This means that when you ask your question, it’s not about whether you can understand it.

But it’s whether your client can, too.

Vocal

Beyond the words you say, it’s also about the vocal aspects of your question.

This can cover:

  • Pitch
  • Tone
  • Inflections
  • Backchanneling (for example, saying ‘Go on, yes, um, uh-huh…’ to show that you are listening)

Non-verbal

Then there are the gestures.

How you sit.

How you face the client.

In my first year at university, I remember that we would start role-playing with our classmates. Another classmate would film us.

Then a professor would comment on the films of us.

Initially I thought it was strange that there were comments on whether we opened up or closed our palms.

It was later that I began to realise how important that was.

The meaning you translate to your clients does not only come through your words, but also what you don’t say.

One of my best role models was my former therapist.

When I said something, he would often take a long 10 second pause, where he would look into my eyes… before questioning me again.

It was scary.

But it also reminded me of the shared, safe space we had, for addressing issues.

It’s sometimes not what you say, but what you don’t say.

Ease people in.

Oh, how’s the weather?

Would you like some water?

Oh, you like Chelsea?!

I once saw a social worker when I was facing some difficulties in life.

When I spoke to her, I was surprised that she started talking to me about the weather. Or my favourite football club.

I mean… I thought I was here to talk about my problem?

But when I eventually started training as a social worker, I saw social worker after social worker using the same questions to ease people in.

To see the person, and not the problem.

Very often, when you do social work, you might leap so quickly into the points of questioning that you forget that you’ve only just met the person.

Maybe a minute ago.

And if you start asking questions about alleged abuse, or areas of concern… what makes you think that they will be keen to answer?

After all, are you police?

Why should they answer your questions?

Easing people in with non-threatening questions helps to build the initial rapport with them. It’s about establishing trust within the relationship before you start increasing the intensity of questioning.

Be mindful.

During my first social work placement, a wise social worker taught me about how to prepare the client psychologically for the questions asked.

She would say:

Whenever I meet a client for the first time, I would often start with:

Not all of the questions I ask here might be relevant. But all of them are important. They help me understand you better as a person.

Over time, I’ve begun to add,

Some questions might feel discomforting. If that is, please let me know.

I’m not perfect.

You aren’t perfect.

None of us are perfect.

Some questions you ask might be culturally insensitive. We might offend someone unintentionally with the questions we ask.

Being mindful is about being aware of the power you hold as a social worker in asking questions.

It is about being aware that your client is in a position of less power. He might feel powerless to refuse to answer your questions.

More importantly, it’s about using power with restraint.

Knowing when to use power, and when not to use it.

Knowing when to ask questions, and when not to ask them.

Conclusion

In the social worker toolkit for interviews, questions can be used as a sword.

Where you cut through all manners of fluff, to get to the heart of the matter. Sometimes, using it like a sword can end up hurting the client.

But it can also be used as a staff, to support someone through their difficult moments.

At the end of the day, see questions as a privilege.

That allows you to walk with someone through their darkest journey.

And never a right.


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