This blog post marks the start of a series of reflections on the 7 Planned Change Steps in the Generalist Intervention Model (Kirst-Ashman & Hull, 2018) which forms the basic framework of our social work practice. I hope to go through these steps in this and my subsequent posts and perhaps, to bring my own insights about how each of these steps could be a topic for supervisors to engage their social workers in reflexive conversations.
In summary, the 7 steps are engagement, assessment, planning, implementation, evaluation, termination, and follow-up. Readers might find it strange that follow-up comes after termination because when cases undergo termination, social workers would hope to have them closed for good. Following up is like fishing for the case to be reopened! However, it is important to remember that social work is not just about the micro-level practice of case management. These 7 steps are also applicable for mezzo- and macro-level practice; and following-up is important to ensure that problems, once resolved, do not resurface within the individual, family, or community; or reappear in a different form. We will visit this in my later posts. For now. let's focus on engagement.
Engagement - Getting it Right, from the Start
Social workers should be able to list all the necessary skills needed for effective client engagement. Attending behavior, empathetic listening, paraphrasing, reflecting feelings, clarifying, using open-ended and closed-ended questions, using silence, and summarising are basic micro-skills that social workers need to muster (and master) when engaging clients.
Engaging clients right is a prerequisite for a successful client-worker relationship. This should not depend on just the use of micro-skills and effective communication techniques. Even social workers new to the field are well informed that having the right values, practice principles, and sufficient knowledge to appear competent to the client is necessary.
Still, putting all these together during that first session with the client can be a daunting task for many junior social workers. We are painfully aware that any misstep during this first session could result in the client losing respect and regard for the worker, making it difficult to build trust for future sessions - you have to get it right, from the start.
Engagement: Address the Immediate Feelings
While social workers are consistently told to uphold their social work principles (these are: individualization, purposeful expression of feelings, controlled emotional involvement, acceptance, non-judgmental attitude, client self-determination, and confidentiality); clients are not tied to these principles in the helping relationship. Clients may be 'seeking a friend to talk to' or 'someone to solve my problem'. Thus, clients may use their experience of their first session to judge the worker's competency to be of help and the worker's expression of warmth, sincerity, and genuineness in wanting to help them.
Clients who come seeking help are most likely feeling helpless, hopeless, having damaged self-esteem, and low confidence. The engagement process must address these feelings first to allow them to feel understood. While some clients may appear ready to talk about 'the problem' there are often underlying feelings that come with it which social workers need to identify. Too often, we get caught up in the tasks of problem-solving and overlooked the emotions. While the feelings about 'the problem' are of concern, there are also the feelings about having to seek help, meeting a total stranger to ask for help, and the uncertainty of getting the help.
Involuntary clients: those mandated by the courts, referred by schools, brought in by parents; they too harbour feelings when they turn up for the first interview session - anger, indignation, a sense of injustice of being forced to see the worker. Social workers at the point of engagement need to address these emotions first before they can even start to ask about the issues that brought them there.
In the context of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society, social workers may face clients from different ethnic groups. Although cross-cultural competency is a skill that social workers develop in the field, we can never be competent enough to really understand the worldviews and challenges faced by clients who are of different ethnicity, especially those from the minority group. Their challenges are real to them. Their struggles are compounded by formal and informal systems and structures that may be more attuned to the privileged majority group.
In this regard, having the humility to view clients as the experts of their own lives will allow social workers to engage them from a 'not knowing' position. This encourages the worker to be open to learning about how the clients' worldviews guide their coping behaviors and decision-making while considering the barriers and challenges they faced.
Engagement is at Every Interaction
And, even though engagement is the first of the 7 Planned Change Steps, it is ongoing even after the first session. Engagement must happen at every interaction to ensure that clients experience the social worker's warmth, positive regard, and genuineness in the helping relationship.
Our relationship with the client might be the only one that gives the client a sense of worth to move forward in life with renewed hope for a better future.