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.
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.
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.