Dear Social Worker
You are Powerful. Never forget it.
There is Power in so many aspects of your life. You have a college education when many do not. That is Power. You have a career that earns you a salary, when many do not. That is Power. You are trained to see beyond the facade when others accept it unquestionably. With a wider lens, you are able to focus on the whole person not just the snapshot they display. That is Power. So you see, you wield power every day without even trying..without even knowing it.
Know it. Be aware. Keep it in the forefront of your mind. Because, ironically, to be truly effective as a social worker, you must always be aware of the power you hold and then try not to use it.
You see, our clients do not feel powerful. Societal norms, prejudice and life circumstances have eaten away at their sense of control and power, like a steady trickle of water erodes a mountain until nothing is left but a jagged ravine. This erosion can effectively render some of our families powerless.
When you begin working with your clients, you set out to engage them with honesty and sincerity paving the road that leads to collaboration. However, if you are not aware and purposeful in your approach, collaboration can evolve into control. Negotiation can turn to domination and the chance for effecting true lasting change disappears.
People are in need of services when they at the point of crisis in their lives. Some clients come to you voluntarily for help, because their current situation has become unbearable and impossible to manage alone.
But some clients are involuntary. Their crisis was brought to your attention by someone else. Someone reported them for abuse, neglect or worse. They were not yet ready to accept the vulnerability necessary to ask for help. They are often angry, suspicious and unwilling to admit that they need help. It is obviously more difficult to build a partnership with someone who is involuntary. It is normal to want to demonstrate your power to get them in compliance to make needed change. But compliance motivated by acquiescence results only in lip service and if change is made it is often temporary. In other words, power is not a good change agent. Empowerment is.
When initiating an intervention with a involuntary client, your first meeting can be the most important one. You are introduced into their world at their moment of vulnerability. The scales measuring the balance of power, are already heavily tipped in your favor. How you handle the beginning will greatly affect the final outcome.
Knocking on their door for the first time, you want them to see you as the one who can help them address their crisis and have good outcomes. But they don’t share the same vision as you. They see you as the powerful judger, who has come to point out all their sins and decide how best to atone. They see your power. They are anxious, some are afraid, some are angry about their own perceived lack of power. What can you do? Why is it so important to balance the scales?
Do you remember what drew you to Social Work? You became a Social Worker to make a difference in the lives of others. You believe in social justice for all, no matter their race, age, gender, orientation or religious belief. You believe that every human has worth and is entitled to dignity and respect. You believe that deep within that ravine of powerlessness lies the abilty for self determination and healing. These beliefs develop into skills that help you to open your mind and to listen with your third ear: not just listening for content but also for understanding. You can’t change the inherent power bestowed upon you by your position and authority. But the scales of power begin to balance as the client becomes more empowered
Empowerment is one tool in your kit that is a great equalizer. By empowering your clients they are able to become real partners in the plan for achieving their vision. Active listening is the cornerstone in building empowerment. Active listening demonstrates your sincerity in wanting to know about the successes, near misses and even failures they have previously experienced when dealing with their life issues. Being heard and knowing their input is being taken seriously allows them to see that you really do want to help them with their current situation. And, as you engage with them around their vision, their power grows and gives seed to confidence in building a partnership with you. It is your ability to empower others, not your own power that helps them to achieve lasting change.
So yes, you are powerful. Yet you hold something within you much stronger and more effective than authoritative power. You hold the keys to empowerment, which leads to hope. And with hope comes the opportunities for lasting change.