As a social worker, should I keep sharing personal stories with the families I am working with?

A children's social worker reflects on the practice dilemma he faced when asked a personal question he wasn't willing to answer during an assessment

family
Photo: Rido/Fotolia

by Andrew Matthews

As part of a learning day for my course to become a practice educator we were required to speak with students about experiences and challenges around boundaries.

The day focused on the dynamic between professionalism and relationship building. We focus on this a lot in social work education, but do we come back to this in practice?

What do we share and what do we not? How do we maintain professionalism yet build a warm, relationship which is compassionate? We can of course do both but perhaps not in every context. How do we approach those difficulties where the personal infringes on the professional? How do we prevent the barrier being created or is there always going to be a barrier? I thought deeply about this and realised that I perhaps had not been thinking much about this in recent practice.

During an assessment with a family in the last few weeks the father asked me if I had a partner. I froze and became a little flustered. I explained poorly that I didn’t want our working relationship to be affected. It was a clumsy response, which I realised in the moment.

‘Too informal’

I explained that I was conscious of our relationship becoming too informal, which may have a detrimental impact further down the line if my assessment concluded that he may have posed a risk to his child in respect of violence in his relationship with his partner.

He understood my point, but I couldn’t help thinking I could have reacted better and could have been better prepared. I remembered that when I was first qualified I thought about potential questions that may crop up when working with families and how best to respond in a manner which was professional, yet open and respectful.

I realised I had become possibly complacent in my practice where I had not thought about expectation setting in terms of the relationship with this family. I had spent time with the family, talking with them about how they wanted me to raise any concerns I had and how best to do this in a manner which was respectful for them. But I realised I had not had a conversation about how we talk with one another and possible dilemmas that may have come up relating to this.

This was particularly relevant with this family as we were meeting weekly. I am aware that I use stories around my own background to build rapport with people that I work with, but had become complacent by not giving sufficient thought to how this contributes to the context of interactions with families. In sharing stories about myself I was inviting a tone to the interaction.

I hadn’t thought deeply enough about how this may lead to questions that may freeze me. I was conscious when reflecting that I didn’t change how I practised i.e. to move away from sharing parts of me as I do feel it is important.

Stop sharing stories?

What I realised was that I need to think more deeply about how this may lead to me facing questions that I may not feel comfortable answering. This leads to somewhat of a practice dilemma for me, how I can expect families to share personal intimate stories from their lives but then freeze when I am asked in return? Do I dispense with sharing stories about me? Stories for example about my own experiences of parenting and how I may resolve conflict?

I am aware that a lot of people may argue yes I should and that advice and strategies can be shared without the link to my personal life but I’m unsure. I feel from experience it can help reduce the impact of the power imbalance inherent in the practitioner-client relationship.

I think that each relationship is different but what I find useful is “warming the context” and “relational reflexivity”. Two ideas from the systemic family therapy thinker, John Burnham, both focus on the need to think about “talking about the talk”. Warming the context relates to thinking with families how you wish to work with one another and taking time to think about how this may pan out. Relational reflexivity is similar but focuses specifically on the relationship.

What frustrates me is that more recently I have not practiced what I have preached; I am aware of the importance of warming the context and relational reflexivity but this has not always translated to action.

Sometimes social work can become more about doing than thinking, with the nature of the system creating fast-paced, action-based practice.

Power

I have thought about the importance of supervision in bringing you back to curious thinking and how practising potential conversations with families is hugely beneficial. There tends to be this belief that more experienced practitioners are more skilled in practice. This may be true in terms of knowledge, but we are not all perfect, and every family practitioners have the privilege of working alongside is different with new challenges in conversations.

There is a need to continually develop skills in conversation and within relationships; to balance the power and curiosity needed to be an excellent practitioner is a challenge at any level of experience.

The power imparted in the social work role leads me to be the one who sets the tone of the interactions. I need to be mindful that my approach in using stories about me will invoke certain responses.

Most questions would be fine with me but asking about my own relationship clearly provoked discomfort in this case. I attempted to use my learning in this area with the family I was working with; at a later stage in the assessment I made the point of sharing with the family how I respected and welcomed their openness about their private lives especially as this was an in-depth assessment where I had not known the family for very long.

I spoke with the family about my dilemmas and my frustration in how I responded in the moment; I felt it necessary to be transparent considering the influence I have over conversations.

The process of reflection in this area has been useful; it has helped realise how important the need to engage in thinking about what I bring to interactions and how to talk about the talk is necessary on a regular basis. This cannot be merely tokenistic and I need to guard against complacency.

In saying this, it is important to remember that social workers are not robots; we are humans working with humans considering deeply emotive issues. The responsibility invested in the role leads itself to be challenging, if we have supportive structures around us to continually be thinking curiously then we can hopefully be of help to children and families.

Andrew Matthews is a pseudonym. He is a children’s social worker.

12 Responses to As a social worker, should I keep sharing personal stories with the families I am working with?

  1. Stephen Lindsay May 23, 2018 at 6:09 pm #

    A very interesting article and I found your reflections gave me things to think about. I wondered, what prompted the question about your relationship status? One obvious explanation is that service users have fantasies about their workers/therapists and perhaps these fantasies are idealised, believing the worker to have lived a life without problems. Or alternatively it can validate/invalidate you in the service user’s eyes, depending on the answer. It will always be difficult to know how your response will be interpreted.

    Working with groups of domestic violent perpetrators we used to be alert to how service users stereotyped workers. The men would be seen as allies to the service users “you know what it’s like as a man” and the women would be seen as having an agenda, perhaps one of being on a band-wagon to “sort out the men”. We used to be wary of questions about relationships as they could feed into the man’s distorted views. Even more so, questions about the workers’ own experience of domestic violence were uncomfortable.

    I have always wondered does sharing information about one’s own personal circumstances actually help with issues of power, or is this an illusion of our own making? If a service user is told, no matter how encouragingly, that they can get through this bad patch, because the worker has personal experience and got themselves through something similar does that help? Or does it compound the service user’s perceived sense of frustration or failure at that point in time? “Not only am I stuck but now he/she is showing me how hopeless I am”.

    I don’t know.

    Some food for thought I guess.

  2. frankie heywood May 23, 2018 at 7:46 pm #

    ‘should I keep sharing personal stories with the families I am working with?’
    No

  3. Kath May 23, 2018 at 9:27 pm #

    Sometimes it’s appropriate, sometimes not. How can we expect people to share such important stuff with us if we don’t give a little of ourselves.
    I’ve never minded sharing a couple of pertinent things to help establish rapport and trust and find that by scrabbling for an alternative answer does little to help a difficult situ.
    As long as it doesn’t become an exercise ‘about me’ and ‘this is what I do’ then I don’t see the harm?

    • Sara May 24, 2018 at 11:44 am #

      totally agree and a need to remember whose needs are being met? the service user or the social worker.

  4. Tina May 23, 2018 at 9:47 pm #

    As a social worker I’ve found it helpful to be open and give small examples of experiences which show ‘I get it’ and often individuals have suggested that they’ve found it useful to know Ive experienced difficulties to, however, I’ve been on the receiving end in my personal life of social workers who have over shared their own personal experiences and thought I really don’t care! A difficult balance to get but needs good supervision and or reflection to help assess what helps and what hinders.

    We are all individuals as are the families we work with, part of our social worker development is about assessing and reflecting on what is appropriate relationship building and interventions with these individuals we work with and sharing (appropriately, keeping ourselves ourselves safe) is part of this process

  5. Vanessa May 23, 2018 at 10:15 pm #

    Qualifying as a SW first, and then as a Systemic Family Therapist, and now registered and practicing as both, your dilemma greatly interests me. You quote systemic thinking in your article, and I wonder how widely understood and respected these views are in main stream statutory SW today in the UK, and in your management team.

    As a therapist, I totally see the need to address the power imbalance, and sometimes sharing personal stories is a great way to address this and emphasise how we are all “work in progress” as humans. However, despite all the research on good outcomes for families from using Systemic Thinking in our practice as SW, I have a huge concern that in the UK, SW is largely stuck in a “them and us” culture, (which has been emphasised by “austerity” in the culling of the more therapeutic and supportive approaches in practice) where SWs showing their own human side is not welcome.

    How fascinating that your dilemma is indeed dependent on the context of SW UK 2018! It’s not easy to get it right with families, when you can be getting it wrong with the senior managers. And they wonder why SW get burned out!

  6. Ruth mueni May 23, 2018 at 11:54 pm #

    A well reflected pieces of writing and sets me thinking, what is appropriate to share and what is not. Social work practice is as complex and dynamic as the human beings we work with each day. What you share can be a switch button for one to see the light and can be a dark tunnel to another. As they teacher, let the person with whom we are doing the work with provide the cues and the lead into what can be shared or not. This is the real empowerment.I learnt long time ago , the one who has a problem tends to have the best solution to fix it if not to manage it. Social work practice is not about fixing people’s problems but about enabling the individual to find a solution. Hence, sharing personal experiences could provide that insight the individual needs or could push the individual further away to finding the solution. Each case need to be viewed in its unique context and be responded in its unique way. Responding to the question about you have a partner , I see nothing wrong with being honest and says yes or no. It is from the next following question that one may need to be alert how to respond to ensure the person asking does not feel blamed and judged or misunderstood. It is mandatory to uphold professional boundaries but that does not stop us from being human . Professionals need to be able to acknowledge they were human before they became professionals. Acknowledging we have or can experience what other people we seek to work with have experienced is a great way of building a rapport and trusting relationships with people. To share personal experiences not always encouraged in order to keep professional boundaries clear. However, refusing to acknowledge our awareness and experiences of the people we seek to work with only makes it difficult to establish positive working relationships. People say’ social workers do not know what it feels like to be me. I have heard people say’ social workers have got no clue of what I am going through, so how can they help me if they know nothing ‘. I would suggest that , admit being aware of the experience by using other scenarios rather than yourself instead of ignoring and hidding behind a professional blind.

  7. Win Escallier May 24, 2018 at 6:15 am #

    What an excellent article. I need to read it again and will certainly bring it to the attention of the team. Stephen Lindsay’s response is in itself, food for thought.

  8. A Man Called Horse May 24, 2018 at 9:46 am #

    Social Workers clearly can and will face HCPC Hearings if they do not keep personal information private. Clearly the emphasis is on control and power being kept by the Social Worker. The reason for asking questions such as do you have children? is to establish if you actually have any life experience of children, if you answer yes you will be in breach of HCPC control agents. If you answer you do not have children, they are probably invalidating you because how can you know the difficulties of raising children. You are visiting a family as an agent of the state and they will probably be aware that you have certain powers that make this an unequal interaction. There is no easy answer, however, what is clear is that if HCPC say no personal information you must comply. You are a Social Worker you are not their friend and the family you are working with need to understand that right from the start. I am always asked personal questions by my service users, are you married, do you have children. I totally agree that sharing some personal information can break down barriers, however, you share at your own risk. I guess the computer says no. As a Social Worker your work now is tightly regulated by your employer and by the HCPC breach the code of practice and you will face the firing squad.

  9. Amanda Jackson May 25, 2018 at 7:17 pm #

    I have always shared my experiences with the families and young people I have worked with. I have found this invaluable in relationship building and as a means of illustration. Social workers are human too and the people we are working with need to know this. I believe that meaningful relationships with those we work is essential to good outcomes for children and their families. This has been my policy for the last 30 years and will see me through to retirement. Social work is all about human connection, let’s not forget that.

  10. sw111 June 1, 2018 at 9:48 am #

    It is true that you are able relate better when you share life experiences with service user – such an approach indicates that lives tribulations and trauma touches everyone. This practice brings about human connection and can be used to address the power barriers and imbalance – however, if the worker’s attitude projects how well the issue was managed by the worker rather than showing him an connection, it will again create the distance between families and us that highlights the inability of the families, their lack of skill and understanding to address the problem.
    However, as the management is regulating the worker and if the management doesn’t like that worker, the worker’s approach will be used to lynch and subsequently the hcpc will follow up that.

  11. Londoner June 14, 2018 at 7:34 pm #

    As a therapist, maybe… As a social worker, no no no.

    I know we can’t be faceless automatons at work: we’re expected to give our names rather than our badge numbers. Even this troubles me: I resent having to use a pseudonym for the work I do in my community and for every time I’m in the local news, and would much rather have the pseudonym for work… For people with rare names, it’s much more likely that people can track your down online.

    My rule of thumb is: how much information would be happy for someone to know about you, if that person wished you harm? *That* is how much information you should share.