Counselling Skills for Social Workers: Integrating Psychological Techniques

Social workers face such a broad range of challenges that attaining new skills can and will always help. Integrating psychological techniques into everyday practice is a valuable tool for social workers facing these diverse challenges. Five simple skills can quickly equip social workers with practical tools to integrate counselling skills into their work seamlessly.

The goal is to enhance their ability to support individuals, families, and communities effectively, addressing complex social issues with a more holistic approach. If you want to apply these techniques in everyday practice, there are many options to upskill;  with courses like a Master of Social Work qualification, expertise is more attainable than ever.


     1. Listening skills 

Many argue that Carl Rogers pioneered actively and compassionately listening to clients. Rogers emerged in the post-war period with a new school of psychology – humanism. At its core, humanistic psychology is based on actively listening to a client and assuming that what they have today has inherent worth; humanists argue that anyone has the capacity to lead a fulfilled life given the right guidance, guidance which unlocks their innate potential. 

The art of listening is just that, an art. It takes practice, persistence, and tenacity. Mastering this skill allows psychologists to connect deeply with clients, fostering an environment where individuals can explore their inherent worth and unleash their potential for a fulfilled life.


     2. Meeting needs 

It is time for the next Hall of Fame psychologist – Abraham Maslow, the man behind the hierarchy of needs. Many are familiar with the pyramid pictured below, but what does it really mean, and how can we apply it as councillors?  Categorising human needs into a progressive framework can be incredibly useful in deciding which needs are most pressing. 

To help a single mother with no income to support her child, therapy would be of little use before she has the means to support herself and the child. In this way, social workers must use a structured framework to meet their clients' needs. Once the mother in the previous example has a roof over her head and food on the table (in other words, her needs are met), we can move on to the “love/belonging” tier. Social workers could assist her in finding a support network, friends to help and other long-term support. 

3. Behavioural interventions 

Social workers can take a page out of the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) book. 

CBT is a broad discipline that uses a range of behavioural interventions, often addressing common issues such as anxiety, depression, and phobias, just to name a few. CBT is a form of talk therapy that looks at the unhelpful mental patterns we have built up, their effects on us and how to re-wire them.


     4. Family systems skills 

When dealing with a complex family situation, as social workers often will, applying techniques from the practice of family systems therapy can be efficacious. It was pioneered by Murray Bowen, a well-regarded 20th-century psychologist who devised his theories through extensive research and practice on family units. Family systems use eight fundamental principles to understand the challenging dynamics of a family unit: 

  • Differentiation of the self – essentially separating yourself from the family identity in order to develop as an individual and not merely a member of the family unit.
  • The triangle – the dynamic between groups of three.
  • The nuclear family emotional process – this looks at the four main patterns that Bowen says in nuclear families: marital conflict, dysfunction in a spouse, impairment of one or more children, and emotional distancing.
  • The family projection process – projection in psychology is a fascinating topic unto itself; it looks at how we project or transmit our emotions onto others; my parents, as well as (I am sure) the parents of others, projected certain emotions onto their children, a classic example is sports; parents so often push their children to compete at a high level due to their perceived lack of success or opportunity as a child. I observed this phenomenon every Saturday morning at tennis matches, you can tell quite easily which parents are supporting their children and which are projecting their desires onto them.
  • The multi-generational transmission process – Bowen's multigenerational transmission process examines how emotional patterns are passed down through generations within families. It emphasises understanding and breaking the cycle of dysfunctional patterns by exploring how unresolved issues from one generation can affect the next.
  • Sibling position – Sibling position theory, influenced by Bowen's family systems theory, explores how birth order affects personality and relationships. It suggests that individuals in different positions (oldest, middle, youngest) develop distinct traits and coping mechanisms.
  • The emotional cutoff – Emotional cutoff refers to individuals distancing themselves from unresolved emotional ties within their family. It involves creating physical or emotional distance to avoid dealing with unresolved issues. This process, while providing temporary relief, can hinder personal growth. Therapeutic intervention aims to address and manage these emotional cutoffs for healthier relationships.
  • The emotional process in society – examines how collective emotions and anxiety impact social dynamics. It explores how societal stressors and emotional patterns influence individuals and groups, affecting behaviour and relationships on a broader scale.

     5. The psychodynamic side 

In brief – yes, Freud is the father of psychoanalysis. His theories pioneered psychology, so what eventually emerged as psychodynamic therapy is widespread and incredibly valuable. The techniques look at the unconscious processes that govern conscious action, often analysing the impact of childhood experiences. 

This dissects the interplay between the id, ego, and superego and uncovers defence mechanisms, like denial or projection, transference and countertransference. The theories are broad, and crisis theory, under the psychodynamic umbrella, addresses how individuals navigate and evolve through crises. In social work, these theories guide assessments and interventions.


     6. Self-care 

When working in the often stressful environment that social workers operate in, it is crucial to look after yourself, and psychology is here to help. Maintain physical health with regular sleep, a healthy diet, and exercise. Stay mentally sharp through reflection, seeking guidance, and non-work hobbies to separate your personal time. On the emotional side, express feelings, journal, and enjoy activities outside of work. Find perspective through meditation or nature. Prioritise family and friends, attend events and balance work and life. All of this, of course, as best you can. 

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