Skills and characteristics of successful social workers

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Young female social worker holding pen and pad, sitting on a couch with a mom and two young children.Most people who choose to pursue a degree like the Master of Social Work and work in the social work field have a passion for helping people. This passion drives social workers to encourage improvement in their clients’ lives. However, it can take a particular set of soft skills to relate to people on a personal level.

These social work skills help ensure that professionals adequately listen to and understand the concerns of their clients, communicate with them, and map the best strategies toward improvement.

Building these characteristics and competencies can make all the difference in social workers’ careers, and their success with clients.

What do social workers do?

Before we delve into the skills and characteristics that social workers should develop, it’s important to understand the duties and responsibilities that come with this role.

As outlined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, social workers engage in activities including:

  • Identifying and analyzing the needs of their clients, including these clients’ strengths, their existing support network, and their current goals.
  • Assisting clients in adjusting to life’s changes and challenges, including situations like the loss of a job or loved one, divorce, or illness.
  • Reacting to and helping resolve crises like violence, abuse, mental health issues, or other types of emergencies.

Often, social workers will meet with clients in an office setting, whether in a specific social work office, school, or health care facility. Social work professionals will meet with individual clients, couples, or families to help them identify and work toward resolving the problems or changes that impact their lives.

Social workers are exposed to a range of very serious situations, depending upon what each client may be experiencing at that point in their lives. These professionals can meet with individuals who have just experienced the loss of a close friend or relative, unexpected unemployment, or those who are in the midst of divorce or relationship problems. It is the job of social workers to help their clients through these difficult times with coping methods and strategies.

Top social work skills

During the often difficult situations professionals encounter with their clients, certain key skills help social workers be successful in their roles:

Strong active listening
Much of social workers’ professional time is spent listening to their clients’ concerns and identifying the issues clients need help with. This makes active listening an incredibly important skill in social work. It’s not just about hearing what clients say, but also giving them attention as they speak and remembering and understanding their words.

As The Balance contributor and career expert Alison Doyle pointed out, active listening also includes noticing and understanding clients’ body language, and the messages they are sending. Someone with their arms crossed tightly over their chest, for example, may be signaling that they are closed off and not yet ready to open up and share. Using these skills can help social workers discern what clients are saying ― as well as what they may not be communicating verbally, but with their body language.

Robust communication skills: Verbal and written
In addition to actively listening to clients, social workers must properly express their thoughts, response, and analysis to clients and the members of their support networks. This makes communication skills critical, including both verbal and written communication.

Social workers must also be able to adjust their outward communication depending on the needs of their clients. This might include softening one’s tone to mirror that of their client, so that he or she feels more comfortable. Adjusting communication might also involve using more actionable language and directives to provide motivation and encourage a client to take action toward a goal.

“Good verbal communication takes active listening one step further,” Doyle wrote. “By adjusting one’s speaking style to the situation, a social worker can be effective in any setting, from a home visit with clients to a courtroom or legislative hall.”

Critical thinking and problem solving
Social workers will face challenging situations with their clients. Certain difficult situations ― including impactful life changes like the loss of a job or spouse ― may require social workers to think outside the box to identify the best coping method or strategy for their clients.

Social workers must have strong critical thinking and problem solving skills, including a mix of logical thinking and intelligence with creativity and thoughtfulness. These skills come in handy especially when dealing with clients facing unique or uncommon challenges in their lives. These issues may require creative solutions, and social workers that have the necessary problem solving skills are better able to think outside the box and establish more creative treatment approaches for clients.

A balance of empathy, trust, and boundary setting
Social workers should also be able to healthily express their empathy for clients and the problems they face. Empathy is the ability to understand others’ feelings and share an affinity with that individual. Social workers who can show their empathy can also breed trust with clients. This helps social work professionals create a more supportive environment in which clients are comfortable sharing their thoughts and experiences.

It’s critical, though, that empathy does not affect social workers’ ability to set boundaries with their clients. Boundaries are incredibly important. They help social workers maintain focus on the goals and duties of their role while preventing burnout.

Organizational skills
Social workers must also have strong organizational skills, as they are often in charge of creating their own schedules for meeting with clients. Scheduling, organizational skills, and time management are imperative for social workers, as often these professionals work with multiple different clients at a time. Meetings with clients and other professionals may also take place during or even outside of work hours. It’s not uncommon for social workers to operate from various locations as well, including their own offices, healthcare or mental health facilities, or another meeting place with clients or coworkers. Note taking during these meetings is also important, as is keeping up-to-date records of clients’ experiences and the strategies used to help them cope. Organizational skills ensure that social workers can manage their busy schedules while also maintaining a beneficial work-life balance.

Becoming a social worker

Overall, a career as a social worker relies on particular skills to support success with clients. Social workers help address a variety of different issues and problems impacting clients’ lives, and at different life stages. Having the necessary skills, as well as educational background, ensures that social workers can properly assist their clients with the best methods possible.

Those interested in pursuing a career in social work should first earn a degree that can help build the types of skills and competencies that are important in social work. While professionals can enter the field and pursue entry-level positions with a bachelor’s degree, a Master of Social Work is highly beneficial in improving on and perfecting the types of skills that social workers require to take on more advanced social work roles and become licensed.

To find out more, check out our website and connect with us for more information today.


Recommended Readings:

A Look at Child, Family and School Social Workers

Master of Social Work Jobs After Graduation



Bureau of Labor Statistics

The Balance

Regis College – Online MSW


Young female social worker holding pen and pad, sitting on a couch with a mom and two young children.