I recently spoke with a non-social worker colleague who said that she has always been interested in the idea of social work as a career, but that she feels like she isn’t one of ‘those people’ who knows how to help others. I thought about the message underlying her comment: that some people are inherently born knowing how to counsel and guide people. These people are ‘old souls’ who are ‘wise beyond their years’ and have an enviable and innate ability to always know the right thing to say when someone needs help. To be frank, I think this is absolute malarkey. Of course some people might have a natural ability to be calm during crises and are able to see the forest for trees, but the real truth is that helpers need to develop skills integral to the helping relationship. It’s one thing to offer advice and give your perspective on what you think a person should do when you hear their plight, but that is not a social work model of helping. The task of social workers is to empower their clients not by giving them advice, but by helping them to find their own solutions based on a combination of understanding their scenario, knowing what solutions will work for them, and recognizing and building upon strengths that they already have. The ability to communicate in such a way is a skill. It’s a way of practicing that you have to work hard at learning and developing just like juggling or writing a really good essay.
I have found the most helpful resource for developing the communication skills required to help and empower clients is Gerard Egan’s The Skilled Helper: A Problem-Management and Opportunity-Development Approach to Helping.* This book is a bonafide standby in many human services fields of practice because it’s easy to understand, easy to use in conjunction with other models of helping, and provides an incomparably effective approach to developing the communication skills necessary to help clients manage their problems and/or develop latent opportunities. Its premise is very basic and enlightening: through a series of stages, the helper uses specific communication skills to aid their client in:
- Understanding ‘what is going on’?
- Deciding what solutions are realistic and appropriate
- Devising a plan of how to get the things they need or want
Going back to the idea that some people are born to be helpers, Egan does say that helpers need to be wise, but he doesn’t define wisdom as inherently existing within any one person from birth. Rather, he uses Baltes and Staudinger’s (2000) definition of wisdom, stating that it is “an expertise in the conduct and meaning of life” (pp. 124,122). In this context, I regard the word expert as someone who has honed a skill. Egan goes on to describe a (very long) list of what could constitute wisdom within that definition, including but not limited to:
- Self-knowledge and maturity
- An understanding of cultural conditioning
- A psychological and human understanding of others
- Insight into human interaction
- Being comfortable with messiness and ill-structured cases
- The ability to frame a problem so that it is workable
- Avoidance of stereotypes
- Contextual thinking
- The ability to spot flaws in reasoning and synthesize information
Within Egan’s list I see a strong notion of learned skills, as his ideas of what characterizes wisdom are not necessarily inborn qualities. Some examples: we have to learn how to be critically self-reflective in order to have self-knowledge; we must study certain disciplines such as psychology and sociology to understand human behaviour and their interactions; we must understand what stereotypes are before we can learn not to succumb to their usage in our understanding of people. Egan’s articulation of the nature of helping and wisdom motivates me to keep learning and do away with the self-limiting idea that some people are magically born with the ability to help others. He states that “although helping is sometimes referred to as an art, the emphasis in the journals is on theory and research.” (p. 18). The more we read and seek to learn about the skills required for effective communication in the helping relationship, the more we equip ourselves with the necessary tools to empower our clients to manage problems and harness opportunity.
I really wanted to list a great quote from the book, but to be honest every single page has a great quote. It’s just that good of a book. I will list a few standouts:
To avoid both naivety and cynicism, helpers should pursue a course of upbeat and compassionate realism (p. 18).
Possibilities need to be turned into goals because helping is about solutions and outcomes. A client’s goals constitute his or her agenda for change (p. 29).
Effective helpers use a mix of styles, skills, and techniques tailored to the kind of relationship that is right for each client. And they remain themselves while they do so (p. 44).
When it comes to clients, the very best helpers have always been learners. They instinctively know that they cannot know everything about everyone but don’t find that fact self-defeating (p. 53).
Probes, used judiciously, help clients name, take notice of, explore, clarify, or further define any issue at any stage of the helping process (p. 120).
Effective helpers are not only understanders (listening, processing, sharing empathic highlights) and clarifiers (probing, summarizing) but also reality testers (challenging) (p. 176).
If you have read The Skilled Helper, which parts did you find useful? If you haven’t read it, what is your most valued resource for social work communication skills?
*I have the Seventh Edition (2002), but the Tenth Edition (2014) is the most recent.