What Are the Most Frequently Used Skills in Social Work?

Social work is an essential and much-needed profession. It requires many specific skills and aptitudes in order to fulfill the job responsibilities.

But what exactly are the most frequently used skills in social work?

Here are insights from experts:

The ability to understand and navigate through the systems

The knowledge base and skill that sets social workers apart from all other human service professionals is their expertise in human systems.

They are trained in systems theory from the very beginning of their collegiate experience. They learn that all systems have common characteristics and behave according to the same rules of system functioning.

Human systems include:

  • Marital and Family Systems
  • Community Systems
  • Cultural Systems
  • Political Systems
  • Health Care Systems
  • Law Enforcement and Court Systems
  • Educational Systems

Social workers know how to assess human problems and design specific interventions for those problems through the lens of understanding systems because they understand how all human systems function.

They can accurately and carefully navigate through roadblocks toward a solution that will fit a particular system.

For example, let’s say the problem is a teenager who is using illegal drugs. Because of the social worker’s knowledge of systems, they can understand the problem as being connected to the multiple systems that must be accessed to address the problem effectively.

That would probably include the teen’s family, their school, the culture in which the family lives, the health care system, and likely the law enforcement and court system.

Understanding the role that each of these systems plays in the teen’s drug use is essential to designing a treatment plan that will work.

Viewing this problem in isolation from these systems usually fails to create change.

So, the most frequently used skill of competent social workers is the ability to understand and navigate through the systems that are part of any human problem.

Katelynn Sortino, BA, CDC II

Katelynn Sortino

Writer | Digital Nomad, Cross Culture Love

One must be a creative problem-solver

The most frequently used skill in social work and social services, from my ten years of experience, is creative problem-solving. When you’re trying to help people as their case manager or counselor, you often have very limited resources but huge needs.

Think outside the box

We constantly had to think outside the box, find unique solutions to difficult problems, and get creative with our approach to helping people meet their needs.

Helping people find the motivation to do the right things

When I say creative problem-solving in social services and social work, I mean things like helping people find the motivation to stop drinking, assisting people in getting their kids back from state custody, helping people find housing and food when they’ve exhausted their resources.

If the solutions were easy, they wouldn’t need services. You’re there to help them find the non-obvious answers and look at problems differently.

Finding and maintaining relationships within the community

This often included finding and maintaining relationships within the community with people who could help your clients with housing, employment, and finding food and clothing.

You find a lot of roadblocks in social work. Many people are saying “no,” and often a big lack of funding or resources for homeless people or struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.

In the helping profession, it can feel defeating if you don’t learn how to find different routes and avenues to help your clients. I remember getting frantic calls from family and friends worrying about their loved ones, which meant we were often meeting them in the community, under bridges, and in homeless camps.

The helping profession is rewarding but definitely not easy and straightforward.

Teaching people how to help themselves

Creative problem-solving also requires teaching people how to help themselves, not doing things for them. It’s often much harder, for example, to take a client on the bus to show them how to use public transportation than it would be just driving them to their appointments.

But ultimately, teaching moments are much more valuable than doing what’s “easy.” Social work often takes a lot of bravery, guts, and creativity to meet people where they’re at.

Mary Joye, LMHC


Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Winter Haven Counseling

Comparing and contrasting a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LPC or LMHC) and a Licensed Counselor Social Worker (LCSW) will assist those looking for help to see if this person is a good fit.

In comparison:

  • They both have master’s degrees and require approximately the same amount of supervised internship hours in and out of graduate school before becoming fully licensed and autonomous as a provider.

    The requirements differ from state to state. That said, most states require a national exam and a strict application and acceptance process.

    Some social workers without master’s degrees can work in a community setting or practice where they have supervision and provide counseling services in some states with this provision.
  • They both have extensive training in abnormal psychology and different treatment modalities such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or a solution-focused approach.
  • Both fields must adhere to ethical solid codes, principles, and rules, usually from national codes in each area and state codes that may uphold or add to the national standard.

There are very subtle but significant delineations between the two, as you can see. However, the most significant difference is at the educational level.

They both follow a different curriculum in graduate school that sets them on a track to achieve the license designation. They also differ in that social workers are educated to provide resources in a community setting, such as helping someone find food stamps, applying for Medicare, or assisting families in health care for the elderly or disabled.

You will often find them in hospital settings due to the immediate need for these services in this environment.

Counselors are most often found in private practice or group practices where they assist clients with their mental health issues and find solutions for their pressing problems.

This practice is more on the behavioral level than meeting the client’s physical needs with resources.

When I was in my final graduate school internship, I worked at a crisis pregnancy center that required social worker interns to counsel and counselor interns to do social work under strict supervision.

It was an excellent way to appreciate how we could collaborate on client care which is why we were all in these fields; to serve those in need.

For both fields, there are three primary skills to be an LMHC or LCSW:

You will need empathy to relate to someone’s suffering

Without empathy, you cannot relate to someone’s suffering. Getting down in the trenches with them through active listening is how to help a person in need feel heard and understood, which they seldom do.

They will open up, and empathy creates trust, essential in all helping professions.

Be non-judgmental

If you are judgmental, the person you are helping will detect it and feel inferior. You cannot have an invisible gavel of therapeutic value in your hand.

Related: How to Stop Feeling Inferior to Others?

The ability to assess needs and assist the client in finding a resolution

The ability to assess needs and assist the client in finding a resolution for their mental health issues or resources for their immediate physical needs elevates a positive outcome for the client.

Dr. Adijat Ogunyemi, DSW, LMSW

Adijat Ogunyemi

Licensed Clinical Social Worker | Adjunct Faculty, National Association of Social Workers

Social workers utilize a myriad of skills in day-to-day practice. Sometimes, some skills are more critical than others depending on the client and situation, but one skill remains at the heartbeat of any therapeutic alliance.

Communication is the most frequently utilized skill

Communication is the most frequently utilized skill in social work, and to put it more succinctly, active listening. Much of social work practice revolves around information gathering, and to gather information, one must pay attention.

Ability to make your clients feel seen and heard

Active listening involves being present during an encounter with a client, restating what they have said, and being engaged in the conversation to understand the client’s needs.

Clients who feel seen and heard are more likely to engage in treatment and services while building rapport with their social worker. As a vital and frequently used skill, every social worker must make every effort to improve their active listening skills.

Alisha Powell, PhD, LCSW

Alisha Powell

Amethyst Counseling and Consulting

Active listening

The most frequently used skill in social work is active listening. Social workers engage with people from various backgrounds and ethnicities. Many times, these individuals are looking to a social worker for some assistance or support.

Social workers are helpers, whether working through a previous traumatic experience or finding an appropriate placement for their loved one.

It is an essential skill to help people with their needs

Active listening is an essential skill because people may not always know what they are looking for or what they need.

It involves physically attending and being emotionally present

Active listening involves physically attending and being emotionally present to assess needs and address challenges that may arise.

It involves thinking between the lines

It involves thinking between the lines and providing emotional support when a client may feel that everything is falling apart.

Social workers may have to ask hard questions and validate someone’s experiences or emotions while also acknowledging that the problem is outside their scope of practice.

It applies to any area of social work

Active listening is a skill that applies to any area of social work and can be effective when engaging with both clients and colleagues.

Holly Wade, LCSW

Holly Wade

Practicing Therapist

Ability to look at all the angles of a situation

As a trained social worker, the skill I use the most is my ability to look at all the angles of a situation to identify where change is needed and where it is possible.

My training encompasses understanding all the systems in play for a person and allows me to advocate for their best interest at all levels.

On the personal level, a social worker can help clients recognize their internal thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and evaluate for maladaptive coping. We then work with them to improve coping for optimal functioning.

At the family level, social workers can intervene with communication, resources, and interventions as needed.

Social workers get to know the local resources and systems of care so that we can make appropriate referrals and work with colleagues in other disciplines to improve outcomes for our clients.

On the meta-level, we work with local, state, and federal institutions and governments to improve systems and gaps in services and advocate for improved services.

In my experience, the MSW degree is the most flexible of the behavioral health master’s degrees, and I encourage young people interested in getting into the field of mental health to invest in this degree.

Ability to connect and engage with people quickly

Another skill that is a close second but not as specific to social workers is the ability to connect and engage with people quickly. When a client feels seen and understood, our work together feels safer for them.

This is the case with other helping professionals as well. I know that I, too, feel more at ease by professionals who listen and demonstrate a true interest in how I am experiencing things.

Ahren A. Tiller, Esq.

Ahren Tiller

Founder and Supervising Attorney, Bankruptcy Law Center

Effective communication is needed

Effective communication is the most frequently used skill in social work. This often involves talking to new people and interviewing potential candidates for vacant positions.

So, someone in the philanthropy field can’t survive without clear and prompt dialogue techniques.

Usually, these individuals become the face of some organization that needs a strong voice to share their message with the world. So, if you have adequate communication skills, it gives you an edge over other people trying to convince different people to become part of your social cause.

Active listening helps build a better understanding of any situation

However, it doesn’t only mean that an individual needs to know how to speak but also listen.

Active listening is quite a huge part of effective communication, as it helps build a better understanding of any situation. And you are likely to be more empathetic of the needs of others.

Cynthia Halow

Cynthia Halow

Founder, Personality Max

This field requires high interpersonal skills

A social worker’s primary role is to be on the ground. This field requires high interpersonal skills. It means daily interaction with people on the lower strata of society.

Social work will entail communicating and building relationships with people. A social worker’s advocacy is to address the community’s urgent needs and concerns.

The emotional preparedness to grasp the situation

Empathy plays a more significant part in this trial. It may not be enough to be resilient nor to be intelligent. What matters most is the emotional preparedness to grasp the situation.

The ability to understand and relate to another person’s experience is vital. Active listening and good communication skills are very important.

Collaboration skills are a must

Social work is not an individual task. It will often be a collaborative effort of a group working towards the same goal. Thus, collaboration skills are also a must. Another required skill in this line of work is assessing and acting on essential items.

Tons of patience is also needed as well as self-care. This is a very demanding role to fulfill. A social worker must know how to take care of herself before she can serve others.

Frequently Asked Questions 

How can social workers improve their listening skills?

Improving listening skills is critical for social workers to build trusting relationships with their clients and effectively address their needs. Here are some ways social workers can improve their listening skills:

Active listening: Listen actively by focusing your attention on the speaker, asking questions, and thinking about the speaker’s words and feelings.

Reflective practice: Regularly reflect on your listening skills and adapt them to changing situations.

Listening practices: Incorporate listening practices into your daily life, such as listening to a podcast or watching a video and then reflecting on the conversations.

Ongoing development: Participate in continuing education or workshops on active listening to improve your skills.

Role-play: Conduct role-plays where you practice your listening skills with colleagues or peers and receive feedback.

Mindfulness: Practice mindfulness through meditation or relaxation techniques to control your attention and focus while listening.

Can social workers specialize in specific areas of practice?

Absolutely! Social workers can specialize in various areas, such as:

Mental health: Working with individuals and families struggling with mental health issues.

Substance abuse: Helping clients with addiction issues and supporting their recovery.

Child welfare: Advocating for and protecting the well-being of children and families.

Medical social work: Supporting patients and families in health care settings, navigating complex medical systems.

School social work: Supporting students, families, and teachers in the school environment to promote academic success and well-being.

How important is cultural competence in social work?

Cultural competence is of utmost importance in social work for the following reasons:

Building trust and rapport: Cultural competence helps social workers build trust and rapport with clients from diverse backgrounds, which is essential to creating a safe and supportive environment where clients can share their experiences and participate in the helping process.

Understanding and respecting diversity: Being culturally competent means recognizing and respecting clients’ unique values, beliefs, and traditions.

This understanding allows social workers to approach each client with an open mind and avoid imposing their own cultural norms or biases.

Culturally appropriate services and interventions: Cultural competence provides social workers with the knowledge and skills to tailor their services and interventions to their client’s specific needs, preferences, and cultural contexts.

This ensures that the support provided is relevant and effective and respects the cultural identity of clients.

Promoting social justice and inclusivity: Cultural competence encourages social workers to challenge personal biases, stereotypes, and prejudices and to advocate for policies and practices that promote social justice, inclusivity, and equity for all people and communities.

Reduce disparities in service access and outcomes: Culturally competent social workers can better identify and address barriers that clients from diverse backgrounds may face in accessing services and achieving positive outcomes.

In this way, they help reduce inequalities and promote equity in social services.

How can social work skills be applied to different populations?

Children and families: Children and families may need social work help due to problems such as abuse, neglect, poverty, homelessness, or mental health issues.

Social workers need empathy, active listening, and communication skills to build trusting relationships with children and families, as well as problem-solving skills and the ability to navigate complex systems.

Elderly: Older people may need social work services due to cognitive or physical impairments, such as dementia or mobility issues.

Empathy, active listening, and communication skills are important skills social workers need to build trusting relationships with seniors, as well as problem-solving skills to help families navigate medical and healthcare systems.

Immigrants and refugees: Immigrants and refugees may need social work support to navigate the legal system, medical system, and social networks of a new country.

To provide culturally sensitive services, social workers need cultural competency, active listening and communication skills, and problem-solving skills to navigate complex government systems.

LGBTQ+: Social work services for the LGBTQ+ community range from access to health care to mental health services to advocacy.

Empathy, active listening, and communication skills are essential to building trusting relationships with LGBTQ+ individuals, as is cultural competence to provide non-discriminatory services.

What challenges do social workers often face?

Heavy workload: Managing a large caseload or competing priorities can be overwhelming.

Burnout: Social work can be emotionally and physically demanding, leading to stress and burnout.

Challenging clients: Working with clients who have complex problems, past trauma, and difficult behaviors can be challenging.

Limited resources: Social workers may have to work with limited resources, making it challenging to provide the necessary support.

Ethical dilemmas: Social workers may face ethical dilemmas in their work, requiring them to navigate complex situations within ethical standards.

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