Building positive relationships in social work
By Luke Aldred
How do you make sure you interact positively with families, build trust and achieve the best outcomes?
"There are compelling philosophical, policy and practice reasons to put relationships at the heart of social work." That's one of the key conclusions in a 2018 report by Iriss, a Scottish charity that supports the social care workforce. The message is clear. Building positive relationships is fundamental to achieving successful outcomes. But it relies on social workers using a range of communication skills to empathise, explain, reassure and provide practical support in ways that build trust and confidence.
Show you care
Social work often involves working with families who have had negative life experiences. This may have left them mistrustful of others. The first step to gaining their confidence is to listen and understand, showing them that their feelings and needs are important. Essentially, it's about trying to 'put yourself in their shoes'. And don't forget, body language is as important as verbal communication.
Tell it like it is
Honesty is the key to building trust. Of course, you must always be considerate and sensitive in the way you express yourself and deal with key issues. But most people will appreciate being told the truth and will respond positively.
Many families that interact with social workers have insecure lifestyles. If you're consistent in your approach and the information you give them, they're more likely to see you as a reliable source of support and be prepared to work more productively with you.
Be aware of social and cultural differences
As a social worker, you don't need to be an expert on the attitudes and practices of different cultures. However, it's important to be open, respectful and willing to learn. That means never making assumptions or 'pigeonholing' based on ethnicity or cultural differences.
Strike a balance
In any social work role, there's always a trade-off between statutory compliance and delivering person-centred care, particularly when it comes to vulnerable families. As we're all well aware, social workers are often under extreme pressure to comply with legal obligations. However, it's vital that this is not at the expense of building positive relationships with service users. Being able to balance these two aspects of your professional practice relies not only on self-awareness and good working practices, but also on building good working relationships with colleagues and key contacts in other agencies.
Explain your role
Another important way to build trust with families is to make sure you explain exactly what your role is as a social worker. It's about reassuring them that you're working in their best interests and you'll hopefully allay any fears they may have that you're there to punish them or place unnecessary restrictions on their lives.
Reflect and learn
As with any area of social work practice, self-reflection is vital in building good relationships. Review decisions and actions you've taken. Be prepared to learn from your experiences so that you can improve your practice and achieve the best outcomes.
We have written a selection of pieces around starting and navigating your social work career.