If I Could Leave You With One Social Work Superpower

Tiffany Photo       by Tiffany

As social work students, we become equipped with a wealth of knowledge and practical resources to help our clients. Attending the GCSW program is like attending a superhero convention where you stop at different booths to acquire superpowers for helping those in need. “Got anxiety? Here, try Mindfulness.” “Got depression? Here, try psychotherapy and Prozac.” “Homeless? Here’s a list of shelters in Houston you can try.” “Fighting against racial discrimination? Stop here to fill your empowerment belt!” When we leave class and enter into our field placement, though we sometimes wonder why our superpowers are not working.

I arrived at my first year internship eager to use the skills on my tool belt with the residents at Freedom Place, a residential treatment center for girls who have been rescued from sex trafficking. I was excited to teach the residents a weekly dance class, for example, but things didn’t go as planned when in week one I attempted to show them how to do a plie and a tondue. By the second week, almost all the girls were just sitting along the walls, watching me dance, requesting their own songs. I was a stranger, asking them to be vulnerable with their bodies by moving through space in ways they had never attempted.

When I was 15, a very wise woman sat across from me at a Barnes and Noble and gave me simple, life changing advice. I was in the midst of a spiritual transformation and wanted to share what God was doing in my life with my family and friends, but nobody seemed to be listening. She said, “Tiff, people don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” It’s a bit of a familiar phrase, but the trick is figuring out what caring looks like for a social worker. I thought I would be able “fix” my friends and their problems just by telling them about Jesus. I had one tool in my tool belt, and I only knew one way to use it—but each of my friends and family members had different concerns, perspectives, and needs. Caring for them would require learning about those differences, adopting a multitude of approaches, and, honestly, carrying a heavier tool belt.

Once I realized the residents weren’t digging my ballet techniques or Taylor Swift jazz routine, I asked—out of desperation—what they were wanting to learn. “Hey Miss! Can you do the Nae Nae?” From then on, I tried to choose music and dance genres that fit their interests, skill levels, and cultures. I showed them that I cared: I taught hip hop and salsa, I left out the plies, and I got more participation.

More often than not, if people are seeking services from a social worker, they are in need of help; they are in a vulnerable position, and helping them requires care. Our tone, rhetoric, body language and other nuances can determine whether they’ll return next week for their therapy session, or never seek out help again. Our knowledge of interventions and evidence-based treatments is moot if we do not first establish a therapeutic alliance. This process of building rapport begins during assessment. It’s not rocket science; it is simply having the eyes and ears to notice struggle, denial, pain and strengths in a person. It’s the difference between recording parents’ marital status on an intake form, and noticing how a girl’s eyes welled up when she whispered “divorced.” It’s pointing out an overlooked success: “Wow! It’s amazing you finished high school on time with two toddlers at home. Not many people are that dedicated to their education.” Building this therapeutic alliance continues throughout the treatment process.

But here’s what’s hard about it: social work is a helping profession where you constantly pour out your kindness, patience and resources and usually don’t get anything back. Our clients have been through hard places! In most social contexts, when we are personable and warm it is reciprocated. However, our clients are not our friends.  It is like inserting quarters in a gum ball machine but never seeing that sweet multi-colored ball come spiraling down. That’s not to say social work or therapy is not rewarding: in this past year I’ve experienced many fulfilling moments. However, we can not expect clients to reciprocate the warmth and empathy we give. We offer this part of ourselves not to get something in return, but to create a safe place for clients to receive the help they need without experiencing shame.

Psycho-education is an essential aspect to any treatment intervention, but if it is coming from a stranger’s mouth it will fall on deaf ears. Building rapport provides the soil for cognitive shifts to eventually take root.

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