MTSU Social Work Department

Interviewing Skills for Social Work Practice (S.W. 2630)

Interpersonal Skills

Definition: Interpersonal skills are the "sum total of your ability to interact effectively with other people." (Johnson) It is obvious that your ability to communicate effectively, to feel comfortable, to be trusting and trustworthy are important for social workers and other professional helpers. We need to have a capacity for closeness or intimacy, which is seen as desirable; distance, on the other hand, is a problem. Effective social work requires effective relationships. The development and maintenance of good relationships throughout the helping process requires effective interpersonal skills. This is true for several reasons:

1. It is only through a relationship that we gain trust. Trust is necessary for clients to confide in us to tell us about their lives. This makes it possible for social workers to assess the client's situation, to contract with clients, and to work together toward solutions.


2. It is primarily through a relationship that we gain a client's confidence. Clients learn of new possibilities and make more effective decisions about their lives when they believe in the competence of the person who is helping them. Effective relationships increase the probability that clients will have that confidence in the worker.


3. The helping relationship is the most important tool for social work practice. We do not use medications, lectures, or legal processes as do the medical, teaching, and legal professions. We use relationships to work with clients to do the work of our profession.

Since relationship is so important, there is always the question about how close to become with clients, and a great deal of discussion about this in the literature on helping processes. Since a close relationship is a good thing, there is the question about getting too close. It certainly is possible to become too involved with a client but, in my opinion, there is much greater danger of not permitting yourself to be close enough. There are some good things to think about to make this less of a problem:

1. Have effective personal relationships. Friends and family members help us keep things in perspective. When these relationships go well, we are more likely to feel confident and practice ethically with respect to our relationships with clients. We are much less likely to be tempted to use clients to meet our needs when we have people in our personal lives to love.


2. Have effective supervision. Social workers have supervisors. These more experienced workers are helpful in telling us about resources and making sure we understand our responsibilities, but their most important job is to support us, the be the "social worker's social worker." It is vitally important to have a close, trusting relationship with a supervisor who can listen to our problems, hear our frustrations, and be a shoulder to cry on. Many agencies also provide opportunities for group supervision or other ways in which workers can support each other. Consultation with co-workers need not be limited to what is right for your clients, but can also be helpful in learning what you need to do for yourself.


3. Remember that clients are different from friends. We should be friendly with clients but not think of them or treat them as friends. Friendships are generally reciprocal relationship, where we receive benefits as well as give assistance. Relationships with clients are nonreciprocal, we enter into them to help with no expectations of receiving anything in return. Surely we receive gratification from the satisfaction of a job well done when we are helpful, but that is a benefit of our work, not from the relationship. We do not expect clients to thank us or send us gifts. A professional does not require appreciation or affection. In fact, we have to be careful to communicate to clients that affection or any sexual interaction is not a part of helping relationships. Emotional intimacy is required, but in this case closeness does not mean romance.


4. Do not let fears of closeness keep you too distant. A much more common result of relationship issues in professional helping is the worker who is cold and distant. Sometimes this is used as a defense of the danger of becoming too close. Clients are much more likely to complain of the social worker who does not care enough or who does not take time to understand than to feel exploited by one who is too intimate. If you want to be a good social worker, you will learn how to have close relationships with people who are in trouble. You will learn how to end a relationship well so you can move on to the next client. You will learn how to fall asleep at night in spite of the closeness you feel to people in crisis during the day. That is part of learning social work. It is impossible to do this job well, however, if you do not allow yourself to get close and feel concern for your clients.

One of the problems with this requirement that we develop an emotional closeness with clients is that intimacy is a scary thing. Being close to people in client roles can be especially frightening for several reasons:

1. It is frightening to be close to people who are in trouble, are different from us, and who are not seen as attractive by society. Clients are likely to reflect one or more of these characteristics. The more we work with people, the more we learn that most clients are just normal people who are at a bad point in their lives, but that is often difficult to remember when the situations that clients face at the time they need help are overwhelming and make their lives and the lives of people around them so difficult.


2. It takes energy to build relationships and be close to several people every day. Social workers and other helping professionals need to build up their interpersonal strength and endurance. It is part of the job. You will either learn how to do it or get burned out. One of the consequences of having clients in our lives and learning the difference between clients and friends is that we stop needing our friends to be "clients."


3. Intimacy is difficult when it is so temporary. Clients are in our lives for relatively short periods of time. It can seem crazy to work so hard to develop relationships which are over so quickly. We keep friends for a long time; we are not use to the need to say good-bye to people we care about every week or every month. Well, it is part of the job, another thing that good social workers learn how to do. Effective termination will be discussed as a part of the helping process.

There are things you can do to develop your interpersonal skills along with the above suggestions. These include:

1. Increase your self-awareness. Relationships involve two people. You are an important part of what happens between you and any client. the more you understand about what makes you tick (and what ticks you off), the better the process will work.


2. Increase your knowledge of people. Experience is a great teacher of this, but you can add to that by reading, attending presentations, and paying attention whenever you have the chance. Tanya and I have this game we play when we go out to eat, trying to guess about the nature of relationships between people at other tables. Her training has made her good at seeing similarities in features; I try to figure out relationships based on non-verbal cues, then we check with each other. Perhaps a silly game, but it helps to keep us aware of messages the world is sending us.


3. Stay healthy. Any human performance is improved by good health. It is not just the basketball players and the mountain climbers that need to be in good shape. Get exercise, eat well, get enough sleep, stay off of drugs, and you will build more effective relationships and be a better social worker.


4. Take breaks and find ways to get your mind off your work. We work best when our work does not consume us. It is important to take advantage of week-ends, holidays and vacations. Social workers are too often tempted to save the world by working endlessly. This too often results in frustration and burnout. Maintain a balance in your life. Be good to yourself as well as your clients.