The use of self and relationship: Swimming against the tide?
In Counselling Skills in Social Work Practice (2005) I wrote from the perspective that counselling, communication and relationship skills remain at the heart of social work practice. This theme is now embedded in the National Occupational Standards for training social workers (Topss 2003a). This chapter considers the ‘use of self’ and ‘relationship-based’ work in a climate where these concepts are debated because of the increasingly managerial contexts for social work practice which have been developing since the late 1990s (Harris and White 2009). The development of policies and procedures which set targets linked to the increased used of new technologies have led to more proceduralism and to social workers spending more time at their desks than with service users. Despite this, service users and carers have consistently reported a preference for working with social workers who are knowledgeable and also show the ability to support, listen and relate in a humane way. This is seen clearly in the statement of the views of carers and service users which was published with the regulations for the new degree (Topss 2003b) and is supported by research findings across service user groups (Prior et al. 1999; Beresford et al.* 2008). In this chapter I argue for the professional use of self and relationship in social work practice. The space that social work occupies in society has always been contested, there have always been control as well as care functions. There remains an imperative to operate from the values that underpin professional identities and professional judgements, as social work is inherently a profession concerned with social justice (International Federation of Social Workers 2008). Social workers, as Hardiker and Barker (2007)
have argued, are rarely ‘arbitrary’. Practitioners endeavour to work in partnership with a range of other professionals and build relationships which enable everyone to carry out their roles to the best of their abilities, based on knowledge, skills and values. However, social workers’ relationships with the public have been hindered by the underfunding of well-intentioned legislation, leaving a widening gap between the rhetoric and reality of service provision; a belief from government that ‘targets’ create solutions and media misunderstanding of what social work in these contexts can realistically achieve. It is a challenge to individual social workers and their teams to remain resilient in this climate and to find time to use the values, knowledge and skills which are available to them to practise as effectively as they would like, in partnership with service users and carers. There remains a tension between the roles they carry out and their personal caring skills.