Wearing two hats: How do counselling and social work fit together?

Fiona Start explains the dilemmas facing dual qualified social workers with a background in counselling

Fiona Start: 'as a social worker you can't afford to really feel people's distress.'

The popular perception is that social work and counselling are ‘almost the same thing’ as both are about listening to and empathising with people.
However as someone who trained as a social worker in the 1980s and more recently as a counsellor with the Re.Vision Centre for Integrated Psychosynthesis, I am aware of both similarities and differences.

I believe it is important for dual qualified practitioners to be aware of these and, especially if they practice in both fields, to know which hat they are wearing.

The Dilemma 

One dilemma for the social worker/counsellor is how helpful or directive to be. Whilst both roles espouse the belief in enabling rather than ‘doing for’, I feel that as a social worker I would do more for my client – perhaps ring another agency to refer them, whereas as a counsellor I will tell people about another agency and maybe give them the phone number but certainly not ring for them.

No doubt some counsellors would see even providing a phone number as undermining the ethical principle of client self-determination and it could indeed make a client feel that in order to be a ‘good client’ they ‘should’ do what I have suggested.

And how about this dilemma?

There is no doubt that counselling skills are very powerful. Being really listened to and receiving compassionate empathy without being judged is a powerful experience for anyone – it induces people to tell you their deepest secrets.

Clarifying your position

From an ethical perspective, should we use these skills – which are meant for the confidentiality of the counselling session – to extract information from service users when acting as a social worker?

I’m not suggesting that we would lie to a service user and pretend that something they say is confidential when it isn’t, but it is very easy, simply by being supportive and encouraging, keeping one’s face neutral (not looking shocked, for example) to elicit information from people who are unwittingly digging themselves a hole. Is this ok?

Or should we issue a health warning that explicitly states that ‘anything you say may be taken down and used in evidence’?

I feel that when I am acting as a children’s social worker my duty to safeguard children and to make the best assessments I can of parents and potential carers requires me to use all my skills, including my rapport building skills, even if as a result I form the view that they are not suitable to look after children.

For me the ethical thing is to get as much information as I can, check back that I have understood it correctly and then use it.

However, I know that some colleagues have not been comfortable with this approach and see it as duplicitous.

Keeping confidentiality

Finally, there’s the thorny issue of confidentiality.

Again, espoused by both social work and counselling, but what we mean by it can be very different.

Social workers work on a ‘need to know’ basis and often in working with children and families there are a wide range of professionals in the team around the child who do ‘need to know’.

Whereas confidentiality lies at the heart of counselling and save in a few specific situations – such as safeguarding, suicidal ideation or where ordered by court – counsellors will not disclose the content of their work to others.

This can get interesting when I see prospective adopters for infertility counselling and adoption social workers ask me to share with them how the sessions have gone.

Having been an adoption social worker myself, I can absolutely see why they would like someone else’s take on an adopter – but quite apart from my duty towards my client, it seems to me that my opinion would be just that: an opinion.

For me the better test of whether pre-adoption counselling has helped is whether clients themselves feel and think differently as a result.

Putting up barriers

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of training as a counsellor for me was letting down my defences – how to cope with the sheer emotional pain of many service users’ lives.

As a social worker you just can’t afford to let it inside you – to really feel the distress of the people with whom you work.

As a counsellor you must; you must allow the suffering of others to get under your skin to some degree if you are to truly enter their inner world.

I found it increasingly hard to switch between the two stances; to open myself up and then to shut down again sometimes in the same day as I switched between jobs.

Ultimately this tension together with a simple desire for a change – I reckon after 30 years as a social worker I have served my time! – has led me to move out of local authority social work.

Withholding judgement

Sometimes I miss being in that ‘judgment seat’ because I think my counselling training enhanced my ability to make subtle, nuanced assessments of service users.

However, when I think about the ever shorter time scales for alternative carer assessments in care proceedings now, it doesn’t feel like the courts have any use for such assessments.

Instead I now enjoy the freedom to really join my clients in their inner worlds with empathy but, crucially, without judgment. And that seems the right place for me to be.

Fiona Start is a qualified counsellor and former social worker who works in private practice and at PAC (formerly the Post-Adoption Centre) in London.

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