10 Skills Every Social Worker Needs

Social work is a demanding and varied profession, often requiring a practitioner to wear many hats on a given day: adviser, therapist, caretaker, administrator, clinician and many others. Though these diverse roles seem to require a limitless range of knowledge and expertise, a social worker with a well-rounded set of basic social work skills will be able to excel in the face of adversity. Below are 10 important qualities of every great social worker.

1. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to identify with or vicariously experience someone else’s needs, circumstances or emotions. Every day, social workers help people through some of the most challenging emotional and logistical problems of their lives. Social workers need to intellectually and emotionally understand individuals’ experiences to determine how to help.

Empathy in Action

Social workers who work with victims of human trafficking earn the trust of their clients by showing empathy. USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work Clinical Professor Annalisa Enrile, who specializes in solving human trafficking, said that to grasp the enormity of the problem of sex trafficking and exploitative migrant labor, social workers are helping to “map the edges of this phenomenon,” by seeing victims and learning about their experiences. “This is the only way that we will understand the sheer expanse that our practice needs to cover,” she said.

To learn more about why empathy is among necessary social worker skills, read “Freedom’s Journey: Understanding Human Trafficking.”

2. Boundary-Setting

A social worker must be able to set boundaries and accept the limits of what can be accomplished during a specified period of time. The nature of the profession can be all-consuming, especially for those who sense their work is never truly complete. Establishing boundaries can help set reasonable expectations. 

Boundary-Setting in Action

Social workers have to balance building trust while affirming a client’s autonomy. For example, a person may not respond well to being asked if they are in a violent relationship, said CarolAnn Peterson, lecturer at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and expert in domestic violence issues and the empowerment of abuse victims. “We should explain that this is something we ask all of our clients, and that if they are in a violent relationship, we have resources. Initially, they may say, ‘No.’ But, you’ve planted the seed and that’s always the key."

To learn more about why setting boundaries is among necessary social work skills, read “How COVID-19 Is Affecting Domestic Violence.”

3. Active Listening

Being a good listener, asking pertinent questions and retaining what someone says is vital to the counseling aspect of social work. It’s how social workers establish trust, open doors and learn valuable details about the individuals who seek help with their unique circumstances and problems.

Active Listening in Action

People who are looking for help want to be heard. Social workers have to be able to connect with clients to foster candor and provide support. If a client feels like they are not being taken seriously, that affects their ability to heal, said Sara Kintzle, associate research professor and deputy director of Military and Veterans Programs at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

“Someone who discloses sexual assault and feels that they're believed, that what happened to them is validated, and that their emotions and reaction to it are valid is going to have a very different experience than somebody who is questioned,” she said. “Those things can really impact the trajectory of how someone heals after a sexual assault.”

To learn more about why being an active listener is among necessary social work skills, read “Military Sexual Assault: Why Are Service Members at Risk and What Can Be Done to Prevent It?”

4. Perceptiveness

In addition to being a good listener, a social worker must be observant and know how to read people. Their body language, social cues, implications and behavioral cultural patterns are potential indicators of what is going on. While some clients may clearly state their needs and work toward solutions in a focused manner, many others will find it challenging to express themselves verbally, requiring a social worker to use their power of observation to interpret unverbalized thoughts and feelings.

Perceptiveness in Action

Social workers’ perceptiveness helps build bridges in the community. The USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work has placed student interns in police departments to help officers observe and understand the needs of community residents. During her time in the MSW@USC program, Yasmeen Surio, MSW ‘18, parlayed her clinical placement at Los Angeles Police Department’s Hollenbeck Police Activities League into a full-time position, where her job was to guide officers to use a holistic approach when dealing with troubled youth.

“What are the other things that are at play that make this individual act the way he does or she does?” Surio said. “Let’s not look at him or her for whatever crime they’re doing but what’s going on in their family and their environment. Let’s try to understand the individual as a whole.”

To learn more about the importance of perceptiveness among necessary social work skills, read “How Social Workers Improve Relationships Between Police and Communities.”

5. Self-Awareness

Social workers routinely receive feedback on their performance from clients, supervisors and other sources, but there is no substitute for self-awareness. Being able to evaluate one’s own performance and work toward improving it (while also taking valid criticism and praise into account) is an invaluable skill. Learning from experience allows social workers to be better equipped to handle similar situations in the future.

Self-Awareness in Action

Using the framework for micro-mezzo-macro levels of social work to identify strategies and learning opportunities related to racism, social workers can grow from their own insights, oversights and mistakes, said Renee Smith-Maddox, clinical professor and diversity liaison at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Then, they can start confronting their own social circles even when it’s uncomfortable. “You have to create spaces for intergroup dialogue and strive for new levels of understanding, relating and action” she said. “In reality, this is hard work, and you won’t always get it right. Anti-racism is a practice and a process.” 

To learn more about the importance of self-awareness among necessary social work skills, read “How to Be Anti-Racist: A Social Worker’s Perspective.”

6. Organization

Social workers are often required to deal with busy schedules, heavy caseloads, documentation, activities and team projects. Organizational skills improve time management. Successfully managing and prioritizing the logistical aspects of the job can provide social workers with more time to provide meaningful services to clients.

Organization in Action

A social worker’s organizational skills can directly benefit clients, too. The Trojan Guardian Scholars (TGS) program at USC, co-founded by two USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work faculty members, supports undergraduate students who are in the challenging period of having aged out of foster care. TGS Program Coordinator Flavio Guzman Magaña works with the students to help them plan for housing, internships or employment during school breaks. During the holidays, TGS also plans social activities. “While we can never take the place of family,” said Guzman Magaña, “we try to make sure that there’s a support system for them — not just within our program but within USC as well.” 

To learn more about the importance of organizational skills for social workers, read “How to Support College Students Who Experienced Foster Care During School Breaks.”

7. Coordination

Facilitating communication and action among multiple parties is a vital part of a social worker’s role in connecting clients with services. Social workers have to navigate relationships, bureaucracy and systems to solve the problems that are facing their clients, whether they are individuals or communities. Coordination skills also include logistical savvy and the ability to juggle multiple assignments. 

Coordination in Action

Social workers know that partners are more likely to join community projects led by a skillful coordinator. Concepcion Barrio, associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, is the co-creator of a mental health counseling program at the Mexican Consulate of Los Angeles that offers free services on site for clients regardless of immigration status. USC also has a smaller program at the Consulate General of El Salvador in Los Angeles. Such programs require coordination between social workers and the consulates so clients are comfortable receiving help.

“The culture is kind of a double-edged sword. It's protective in that you're insulated by a culture that is generally collectivistic and family-oriented, where faith and hope are huge protective factors,” she said. “But on the other side of it, there is such a misunderstanding and a lack of adequate information about mental health and mental illness that it interferes with timely help-seeking and being open to receiving help.”

To learn more about the importance of coordination skills among social workers, read “Facing the Fear of Deportation.”

8. Persuasiveness

Whether it’s to help a client change behavior, motivate a health care worker to provide service or justify coverage of expenses to an insurance provider, the ability to advocate, influence, coax or invite others to take action is invaluable to any social worker. At the macro level, social workers research, analyze and present information to persuade policymakers. At the micro level, social workers might rely on the power of persuasion to get homeless clients to a shelter or medical care.

Persuasiveness in Action

Social workers who specialize in troubled youth know that someone experiencing deep psychological pain might self-harm to find temporary relief from mental anguish, said Susan Lindau, adjunct professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Adolescents may feel especially troubled when they are experiencing serious issues like divorce, their first relationships and peer pressure to drink. But it’s imperative to persuade them not to self-harm. “We need to teach them how to manage a crisis,” she said.

To learn more about the importance of persuasiveness among necessary social work skills, read “Preventing Self-Harm: What You Should Know if You Want to Offer Help.”

9. Cooperation

Cooperation can provide a route to solving problems for clients. Being able to negotiate, compromise and work well with others is essential to the coordination of efforts required in social work. Solving a client’s problem might require collaboration with family members, school staff, health care professionals, people working in the justice system and others. 

Cooperation in Action

Social workers who practice in the area of child welfare and adoption are finding an increasing number of potential parents among the LGBTQ population, and more stakeholders are collaborating to help them adopt, said Devon Brooks, associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “As a profession, social work is doing well in terms of not just allowing LGBTQ couples to adopt but also reaching out to them, engaging them and trying to support them,” he said.  

To learn more about the importance of cooperation among necessary social work skills, read “LGBTQ Adoption: How Adults Can Prepare to Become New Parents.”

10. Self-Care

Social work is a deeply rewarding profession, but it can also be incredibly stressful. To remain engaged and effective at work, it’s imperative for social workers to take care of themselves so that they can take care of others. Leaving work at the office, getting enough rest and enjoying free time is important for social workers as it is for their clients.

Self-Care in Action

Many social workers have clients who have experienced a host of mental health challenges throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, brought on by a mix of fear, uncertainty, sadness, anger and grief. Brittani Morris, clinical assistant professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, used this experience to inform the program’s Virtual Field Practicum in order to give students an authentic experience of working with a client through a challenging event like a pandemic. Morris shared strategies that she encourages her students to use in order to help clients who are struggling. But social workers are human too, and many of the strategies that they use with clients can be applied to their own lives to help build resilience in tough times.

“We’re all in this together,” Morris said. “And if we’re taking good care of ourselves in these emotionally distressing times, that will only help us be prepared for what’s to come.”

To learn more about the importance of self-care, read “Learning How to Make Progress Toward Goals When It Feels Like Life Is Holding You Back.”

By the very nature of who social workers are and what they do, most of the qualities and skills identified here are innate to their personalities. Social workers will become familiar with how to use them effectively to solve clients’ problems and help their communities, affirming that their career is meaningful and essential.

Discover the Online MSW Program From USC