What Skills Are Needed
for a Career in Social Work?

See also: What is Counselling?

The job of a social worker is highly varied, but the goal is always to support and improve an individual’s life. If this sounds like you then the profession of social work may be the career path for you. With any industry, there is always more than the surface level, but the basic principle in this case is simply wanting to help people.

To succeed in this greatly rewarding but challenging industry people need to understand the skills required to do so. Let's have a look at what those include.

Taking an elderly person for a walk in a sunny field.

Emotional Intelligence and Sympathy

Emotional intelligence, more commonly known as EI, is the practice of being able to identify and understand human emotions both complex and simple. Emotional intelligence also incorporates the ability to recognize, understand, and manage your own emotions. This is widely important when working in the social services sector to ensure you do not start empathizing with your clients rather than sympathizing. Sympathizing with your clients allows you to have a feeling of concern for someone going through something difficult or painful, where if you start to empathize you are becoming actively involved in the sharing of that person's emotional experience. So, showcasing high emotional intelligence is important to ensure you can draw the line between yourself and your client, which at times will be incredibly difficult to do.

Passion for Advocacy, Social Justice & Empowerment

When working with clients who are struggling you will likely need to step in and become an advocate for them, especially if they are unable to do so for themselves. Social work promotes social justice and the empowerment of your client. Advocacy can be verbally representing your client, writing a letter or email on their behalf, or even just attending a challenging appointment with them as a witness with the knowledge you may need to step in at any time. You may also be called upon to advocate for social justice, through the call for new programs to replace outdated policies and procedures and even the creation of new programs.

Learning The Skills

Like every industry, there will be a learning curve with nobody being expected to go in without any prior knowledge or understanding of what they are getting themselves into. Having a strong desire to help the disadvantaged is an excellent starting point but to fully involve yourself in the social work industry you will need to dedicate yourself to learning and developing.

Undertaking an online BSW, more commonly known as a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) will assist with gaining that extra knowledge. These courses are generally 100% online learning allowing busy individuals to undertake self-paced learning without the requirement of taking time to go into an actual campus.

Undertaking a course in the field will allow you to prepare for careers in areas such as developmental disabilities services, child welfare, nursing homes, criminal justice agencies, and many more pathways in the social welfare world.

Active Listening

Two women talking across a round table.

Once you have completed your studies you should be well versed in the art of active listening. Active listening showcases strong communication skills and allows your clients to feel they are being heard. It also enables you to learn what the clients’ concerns are and as a result, better assist them in resolving them.

Active listening should allow you to build a relationship with your client based on trust and respect. To do this you need to ensure you are not distracted whilst your client is speaking, maintaining eye contact with them throughout the conversation. Nod along at the appropriate times to show you are seeing where they are coming from and as needed respond when it's your turn by paraphrasing back to your client what they have said to show you have heard and what your interpretation is to ensure you are both on the same page.

Finally, with active listening, you don't show judgment. You want your client to see an open mind, even if what they are saying is concerning for you. Remind yourself that they are giving you their perspective and trusting you with it.

Critical Thinking

So, your client has now opened up to you and what they have said could have been quite alarming to you. Critical thinking is vital to ensure you are evaluating the facts of the situation, as you are the one who is going to be required to make educated decisions and judgments on the next steps. You will need to ensure you are aware of the best resources available if you have to refer somebody, but you will need to be doing this with their input and ensuring you are working together to build the best service plan/strategy to assist with meeting their needs and goals without bias. This can be quite challenging as you are entitled to your opinions, but when with your clients you need to remind yourself to focus on what they want assistance with and not what you may be thinking they need.


If you are going into social work with the notion that you are only there to assist your clients, you are unfortunately mistaken. Social work has a higher requirement for documentation than most industries. This is because you will need to be completing comprehensive notes on your client and where they are at, their progression, supports enlisted, and their care plan. This is to assist if another case worker needs to step in and manage their case due to you having a period of absence. Additionally, you will need to compose and send emails to service providers to obtain resources for your clients and maintain databases to keep all records up to date.

The above are just some of the common skills required for social workers with many more skills needed such as problem-solving, high organizational skills, boundary setting, self-care for yourself, cultural competence, patience, professional commitment to your clients, and the ability to be respectful at all times whilst attempting to encourage somebody to do something they may not be aware they needed.

There is no doubt that social work is a rewarding, yet challenging career and each individual should think carefully about their capabilities before pursuing it.

About the Author

Caitlyn Bell is an arts student whose experiences in life make her tougher than anyone else. She can lend you expert tips on diverse topics ranging from relationships to fashion, making money, health, and careers.