Top Five Skills in a Social Worker’s Professional Toolkit

While many social work students arrive at graduate school with sophisticated levels of skill in observation, self-awareness, critical thinking, and verbal and written communication, the MSW@USC program will provide you with daily opportunities to sharpen these tools – in your classes, study groups, and field placements. But how can you use them?


As a lifelong student of human behavior in the social environment, a social work practitioner begins as an applied social scientist. Despite many MSW graduates’ dark memories of their mandatory research course, social work practice often starts with a primary research method – observation. Recall your most recent psychosocial assessment. Before, during, and after you asked a single question, you used your senses to observe and record not only the client’s verbal responses but also his or her nonverbal communication.


A social worker’s efficacy hinges on her level of self-awareness. As a social worker, my reliance on use of self within the context of the therapeutic relationship requires me to develop and refine awareness of my motivations, assumptions, expectations, and biases. Competence in observing, exploring, and articulating how my thoughts and feelings impact my behavior and how my behavior impacts others is a prerequisite for the conscious development and direction of a helping relationship to facilitate change.

A high degree of self-awareness facilitates a social worker’s ability to identify transference and counter-transference issues and utilize this information to assess quality of treatment interventions.

Critical Thinking

How a social worker interprets data obtained not only through observation, interviews, and case file/document review but also clinical supervision, research, and consultation influences the client’s assessment, diagnosis, treatment, evaluation, and termination. Critical thinking asks the social worker to consider how his motivations, assumptions, expectations, and biases (self-awareness) shape the lens through which he analyzes and draws conclusions from the available data.

Although I’ve identified observation, self-awareness, and critical thinking separately in this post, all three of these skills intersect and interact with each other to influence a social worker’s orientation and practice.

Verbal Communication

Verbal communication involves actively listening to understand and speaking to be understood by your audience. As a result, a social worker may alter her communication style multiple times during a single workday to maximize her effectiveness with clients, colleagues, supervisors, or community members. Social workers rely on the strength of their verbal communication skills in settings as diverse as advocating for a client in a public benefits office, providing educational presentations in a church’s fellowship hall, serving as an expert witness in a courtroom, or testifying before legislators.

Written Communication

“If it isn’t documented, it never happened” is one of the first lessons learned in almost any social work employment, particularly if programs are accountable to public or private funders. Micro-level practitioners gain legitimacy with their supervisors and colleagues by writing clear and concise progress notes, correspondence, and reports. As your leadership evolves, you are likely to be called upon to author grant proposals. As a service provider, you are better placed than an external grant writer to articulate a case for financial support to sustain your program. Proposal writing skills, including the ability to write program evaluation plans and reports, are highly desirable to potential employers.

Your time as an MSW student is precious. In addition to inviting faculty to offer their feedback, openly discuss your goals with your field instructor and develop a plan to assess and monitor your growth in these areas. Use this time to take risks and learn from mistakes while you have the support to mitigate their consequences.

An MSW@USC faculty member, Nadia Islam PhD, LCSW, teaches Policy & Practice in Social Service Organizations. She earned an MS degree in social work at Columbia University and a PhD in social work at USC. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

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