How reflective practice can help social workers feel ‘safe’

Facilitated reflective practice groups can help social workers deal with ethical professional dilemmas, conflicts between resources and needs and the complexities of multi-agency working, according to experts. Clinical psychologist Dr Natius Oelofsen looks at an example of how this process can work

Reflective practice helps social workers to develop an understanding of practice events. Group sessions may lead to action in certain cases, but that is not the main goal of the reflective process; instead, developing understanding in the context of a supportive peer group makes it easier for social workers to admit feelings of frailty, failure and personal vulnerability. It is a “safe” space in which to talk without fear of repercussion – and this can dramatically reduce work-related stress. Supervision, on the other hand, is vulnerable to the tension between supporting the social worker and managing their performance.

There are four broad steps involved in reflective practice:

  1. Develop an awareness of what is happening

  2. Find a way to describe or capture it

  3. Develop understanding

  4. Find a way forward

Although external facilitation can be bought in (at some expense), the following model of reflective practice can be delivered in-house through trained facilitators.

Case study: Confronting feelings of powerlessness

Suzie is a newly qualified social worker in a child protection team. She has just started working with a young mother who lives with a violent partner. Her client does not appear to want to end the relationship. The couple presents as very articulate and caring to professionals and claims their baby has never witnessed any domestic violence; the initial referral (according to them) was done due to a report from a neighbour who “had it in” for them. During her last supervision session, Suzie became aware that she is becoming really angry with the mother. She was afraid to say anything to her manager, but, after a few days, she decided to share some of her feelings with her peers in a reflective group for new social workers that was set up by her employer

In the group, the reflective process for Suzie started with the facilitator inviting her to tell the group about her feelings. Here is an extract from the ensuing conversation:

Suzie: “I just realised how angry I felt with her. I know I should be professional about this, but find it hard. I could not admit in supervision that my feelings were so strong; that would be to admit I was unprofessional. But she is choosing to remain with someone who does not respect her or her baby and who will break down her confidence and destroy her. I cannot understand that – I’ve told her that there is a chance she will lose her baby if we don’t think she can keep her safe, but she seems to think she would rather be beaten up and abused than lonely. I don’t understand why anyone would do that.”

Facilitator: “Suzie, perhaps it might help if we try something. I would like us to do what is called a critical friend conversation: I will take on the role of a critical but understanding ‘friend’ and ask you questions about your feelings about this case. I want the rest of the group to listen carefully and observe our conversation. Once we have concluded, I will ask them to share their observations and they can feed back to you. Is that OK?”

Suzie: “Yes.”

Facilitator: “Now you’ve had a chance to think about it a little more, what do you think your feelings towards this mum are about?”

Suzie: “I think I feel angry because it seems to me that this mum is putting her needs and her partner’s needs first, above those of her baby. I also can’t understand why she would want to stay with him. I can just see where this is going and how much grief there will be all round, really.”

Facilitator: “What about you? You say you are angry with her and you don’t understand why she stays in an abusive relationship. What do you feel about your involvement with this case?”

Suzie: “I am concerned for her and her baby. (Long pause.) Actually, I am really very upset. Audrey is such a lovely and happy little girl. How can anyone not just want to love her? (Another pause.) I just don’t seem to be able to get through to her. She does not see the need to change. I feel so powerless.”

Facilitator: “What is it like for you to feel powerless?”

Suzie: “I’ve never felt like this before. My manager basically told me that if the mum does not want to change, we should not waste unnecessary time, and I should escalate the safeguarding process. I feel I’ve failed. I did not become a social worker to take people’s children away. I hate that part of my job. I hate that we can’t make things better. That baby girl deserves better and all I can offer is to take her away from her family.”

Facilitator: (To group): “Does Suzie’s sentiment represent a feeling you share? Suzie, when you go into a family, what do you see as the things you want to achieve?”

Suzie:  “Well, I never thought about these as assumptions. But I do want to make things better and be helpful. I want my efforts to be appreciated. I guess I want to be able to hold my head up and be a competent professional.”

Facilitator: “And when you find your efforts don’t appear to make a difference? What then?”

Suzie: “I feel a failure. I feel incompetent and that everyone else would do a better job than me.”

Facilitator:  “When you think about it rationally, Suzie, is that really true?”

Suzie:  “I guess not.”

Facilitator:  “At this point, I would like to bring in the rest of the group. Please share your observations with Suzie.”

The rest of the group could now use this dialogue as a prompt to reflect on important aspects of their roles. These might include: feelings of powerlessness; assumptions around what it means to practice competently and be professional; using supervision effectively; and limitations in what can be achieved in working with vulnerable people.

Very often, apart from personal learning, conversations such as this also lead to ideas for service improvement. The group might identify the conflict between receiving case supervision and management supervision from their own line managers and request a change so they feel more comfortable to disclose and work with their personal reactions to work situations in supervision.

Dr Natius Oelofsen is a consultant clinical psychologist in a learning disabilities service in the NHS and director of Reflective Learning, a consultancy that aims to advance reflective practices in health and social care settings. Email Dr Oelofsen

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