Essential Skills and Traits for Social Workers

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Social work is a dynamic and demanding profession that requires a variety of skills and qualities. Whether these skills are innate or acquired, success in the field requires social workers to continually develop them throughout their career. While this list is not exhaustive, the following skills are vital for all social workers.

10 Characteristics and Skills of Successful Social Workers

1. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to identify with and understand another person’s experience and point of view. NASW defines it as "the act of perceiving, understanding, experiencing and responding to the emotional state and ideas of another person."¹

“Stepping into someone else’s shoes” and recognizing that experiences, perceptions and worldviews are unique to each individual enables social workers to better understand and build stronger relationships with clients. It is a vital skill that helps social workers to determine a client’s needs based on their unique experiences in order to efficiently provide services.

¹Barker, R. L. (2003). The Social Work Dictionary. 5th ed. Washington, DC: NASW Press.

2. Communication

Communication – both verbal and non-verbal – is a vital skill for social workers. The ability to communicate clearly with a wide range of people is essential. It is the duty of social workers to advocate for their clients – in order to do this, social workers must understand the client’s needs. In addition to being cognizant of body language and other non-verbal cues, this means communicating appropriately and effectively with clients regardless of cultural background, age, gender, literacy skill level or disability. Social workers must also communicate with care providers, colleagues, and agencies, and must document and report information in a clear manner.

3. Organization

Social workers have busy schedules and a wide range of responsibilities in addition to managing and supporting multiple clients, including documentation, reporting, billing and collaboration. This requires social workers to be very organized and able to prioritize clients’ needs in order to effectively manage cases. Disorganization and poor time management could cause a social worker to overlook a client’s needs and result in negative outcomes.

4. Critical thinking

Critical thinking is the ability to analyze information gathered from unbiased observation and communication. Social workers must be able to objectively evaluate each case by collecting information through observation, interviews and research. Thinking critically and without prejudice enables social workers to make informed decisions, identify the best resources and formulate the best plan to help clients.

5. Active listening

Active listening is necessary for social workers to understand and identify a client’s needs. Listening carefully, concentrating, asking the right questions, and utilizing techniques such as paraphrasing and summarizing also helps social workers to engage and establish trust with clients.

6. Self-care

Social work can be demanding and emotionally stressful, so it is important to engage in activities that help you to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Self-care refers to practices that help to reduce stress and improve health and well-being – engaging in these practices helps to prevent burnout and compassion fatigue and is crucial to having a sustainable career. By taking the time to care for themselves, social workers are better able to provide the best services for their clients. Learn more about self-care with our self-care starter kit.

7. Cultural competence

Working effectively with clients from diverse backgrounds requires social workers to be respectful and responsive to cultural beliefs and practices. Social workers must be knowledgeable and respectful of their clients’ cultural backgrounds and must, as stated by NASW, “examine their own cultural backgrounds and identities while seeking out the necessary knowledge, skills, and values that can enhance the delivery of services to people with varying cultural experiences associated with their race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, age or disability.” Possessing a non-judgmental attitude and an appreciation for diversity and the value of individual differences enables social worker to provide clients with what they need.

8. Patience

Social workers encounter an array of circumstances and individuals in their work. It is important to have patience to work through complex cases and with clients who need longer periods of time to make progress. This empowers social workers to understand the client’s situation and avoid hasty decision-making and frustration that can lead to costly errors and poor outcomes for the client.

9. Professional commitment

Being successful in social work requires lifelong learning. Social workers must have a professional commitment to social work values and ethics, and to continuously developing professional competence. This commitment is necessary for fulfilling the mission of social workers – “to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed and living in poverty.”

10. Advocacy

Social workers promote social justice and empower clients and communities through advocacy. Advocacy skills enable social workers to represent and argue for their clients and to connect them with needed resources and opportunities, especially when clients are vulnerable or unable to advocate for themselves.