There are good reasons why ‘soft skills’ are often alternatively labelled ‘empowerment skills’.
They are not the professional abilities and knowledge you need to be a social worker. Instead, they are the personal attributes that will help you to apply your professional abilities and knowledge to this fulfilling career.
Having a good level of soft skills can also lead to greater job satisfaction and feeling more confident in your job role. It can also improve your employment and promotion prospects.
This is true whether you are pursuing a career in social work or any other specialty field. Employers in all sectors are placing a high value on these personal attributes, and over 61% of professionals report that their soft skills are proving more valuable than their hard skills in daily work situations.
This means that anyone with these highly valued personal abilities is also likely to be recognized by their employers when senior posts become available. Also, soft skills are highly transferrable, so they can remain an asset at any level you reach in your chosen profession.
However, as personal characteristics and abilities are now as important as your technical acumen, each career path may have a slightly different set of ideal soft skills.
What are the important soft skills for social workers?
Good communication, including active listening
First, being a good communicator ranks highly on the list of soft skills that are needed to be effective in social work. This includes being a good listener, not simply someone who can explain things clearly and well.
As a social worker, you are often in contact with people who are vulnerable or facing some sort of crisis. They may be distressed, anxious, conflicted and overwhelmed, for example.
Your job will be to get the information needed to help them, and then to give them insightful guidance on their options. The ultimate aim is to help the person or family make informed decisions and start to take steps forward.
This can involve abundant patience, but also care in choosing your words.
It also involves ‘active listening’. This is the ability to ask the right questions, and also knowing the best ways to encourage people to open up to you. You may well also need to be able to read non-verbal information, such as the body language of the people you are helping.
You will certainly take lots of notes as a social worker, and will complete a great deal of paperwork to record, measure and audit the service you provide. There will be many occasions when you need to summarize situations and then read your notes back to someone, to obtain consent or clarification.
There will also be times when you need to speak to groups of people working together to help an individual or family in your care. This means developing good presentation skills and confidence as a speaker becomes a professional asset.
Being a team player
Communicating well with the individuals and families you help as a social worker runs alongside being able to work well with colleagues and other agencies, to find the best solutions and recovery steps.
For instance, in some social work niches, this may mean working with law enforcement agencies, or healthcare providers, to create an effective care team.
As an introduction to the value of having a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) qualification, Spring Arbor University provides valuable insights on the roles and responsibilities of hospital social workers. This includes the need for them to collaborate with other healthcare professionals, to deliver the best patient guidance and support.
However, collaboration and teamwork are important soft skills for social workers in all situations. To be effective in this, you will also need to have a good degree of ability with technology. There are many occasions when you will be sharing information, researching or attending meetings online.
So, being agile and confident in using devices, software and virtual meetings is a valuable soft skill. However, you also need to be constantly conscious of your responsibility to keep client information private and confidential, and to manage data to ensure that it is secure at all times.
Problem-solving and leadership skills
Among the most highly prized soft skills in any professional field is good problem-solving abilities.
This involves developing your ability to apply critical thinking and using all the facts available to reach swift decisions.
It links to being a well-qualified and experienced social worker, of course, as your confident decision-making will increase as your professional skills and knowledge grow.
This leads to another of the soft skills that are valued in the field of social work, and that can easily be classified as an empowerment skill: leadership skills. Leadership abilities are now crucial in any workforce.
According to a research project on this topic, leadership in social work is “the ability of a social work leader to demonstrate professionalism, confidence, credibility, clear goal setting, solution-focused problem-solving, and effective collaboration to support and empower others”.
That last bit is especially important. Being a good leader as a social worker involves not simply collaborating and communicating with your colleagues – it can also be about inspiring and supporting them and recognizing their contributions to a client’s recovery.
Regardless of your career goals or your daily tasks as a social worker, there is one soft skill that is vital. You need to be able to respond with empathy and compassion, particularly when dealing with individuals or families in deep crisis.
This is also sometimes referred to as having ‘emotional intelligence’. It involves being aware of the emotional needs of someone you are trying to help, but also of your colleagues and yourself.
It would be impossible to provide effective help and support without taking the time to understand a client’s viewpoint, for example, and the lived experience that may be coloring their reactions and actions. By being empathetic and compassionate, you can get them to open up more about their circumstances and beliefs, to achieve a better understanding of their situation.
Remember, this is not the same as ‘sympathy’, which implies that you pity someone. Empathy means understanding and valuing someone else’s feelings.
In care teams and social work leadership roles, emotional intelligence also means having good aware of your colleagues’ responses and needs – for example, spotting when a team member is getting stressed, or stepping in to resolve conflict or confusion.
Good organizational and time management abilities
With a heavy workload and a lot of people relying on you, this is certainly a set of personal attributes that can ensure that you are successful in your role. It can also ensure that you find enough time to maintain a good work-life balance.
To be effective as a social worker, you need to be highly organized, strategic and resolute to get through your to-do list each day, fulfill your obligations and juggle a varied caseload. You will need to be good at deciding your priorities each day and knowing what needs to be done to meet deadlines reliably.
Then, at the end of a working day, you need to know how to leave your work concerns and pressures behind. Making sufficient time to refresh yourself, and clear your mind, can ensure that you return to your place of employment the following day, ready and able to tackle your workload.
Knowing when self-care is needed
As a social worker, you will need to advise individuals and families on the best ways to self-manage their recovery from a crisis. This includes advising them on achievable ways to become more emotionally, mentally and physically resilient.
One of the less widely discussed abilities needed to be an effective social worker is knowing how to protect your own mental and physical health! To be good at their job, social workers must be able to recognize and respond to any signs that they are getting stressed or overly tired, for example.
You may need to take time out to invest in your own health and wellbeing. Knowing a few self-care tips can be important at the end of a busy year, or at any time.
Commitment and self-belief
Lastly, as a social worker, another soft skill is being someone dedicated to their professional role, who strongly believes that they can make a difference to other people’s lives.
This commitment starts when you decide to train as a social worker, of course. It is a demanding and difficult job role, with considerable responsibilities. However, it is also a highly rewarding and important profession.
Being a social worker involves continuous professional development and keeping your skills and knowledge up to date. This includes using your own initiative sometimes to research local options and agencies that may be a benefit to the individuals and families you are helping.
You will need to seek out and take on board feedback from a range of different sources. This includes your employer and trusted colleagues. Dedication to being a social worker can even mean learning lessons and knowing what to change when things don’t go well.
The good news is that as your social care qualifications and experience grow, so will your self-confidence. From this personal attribute comes increased resilience and resourcefulness – two more vital soft skills needed by social workers.