Transcript: Emotions in social work practice

Looking at the role of emotional intelligence in social work.

Podcast Episode: Emotions in social work practice

Category: Social work (general) 



What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

IW - Ian Watson
RI - Richard Ingram

Telephone interview with Ian Watson 11 June 2012

Richard Ingram - a lecturer in Social Work at the University of Dundee - is completing a PhD on “Emotions in Social Work Practice”. He has recently published a paper in the British Journal of Social Work looking at the role of emotional intelligence in social work. Iriss’s Ian Watson talked to Richard, via Skype, about his research and its implications for social work practice.

RI Emotional intelligence has been written about for just over about 20 years. Salovey and Mayer were one of the first researchers to identify emotional intelligence as something distinct from IQ. The work of Salovey and Mayer was particularly attention grabbing in that it kind of moved the measurement of how one may or may not achieve positive outcomes in life, and that was the way it started, away from IQ, to something that was much more broad and about emotional attunement, emotional regulation and the ability to manage one’s emotions and understand one’s emotional reactions.

Probably most famously, Goleman in his book on emotional intelligence which was a sort of bestseller and very much was responsible for popularising the concept, made very strong links between the concept of emotional intelligence and the chances and opportunities for success, particularly in business. And he pointed to a whole range of examples where individuals who did not necessarily rank highly on traditional IQ tests, still managed to achieve a great deal or indeed more than those who did achieve higher in IQ tests. And that made it, of course, a very popular concept and one that, in terms of industry and business, was immediately grabbed as a concept that was worth fostering and harnessing in terms of recruitment and in terms of qualities that you would want in staff employed in your company, if you like. In recent years, in the last sort of 10 years or so, increasingly a range of professions that would be allied to social work have sat up and taken notice of emotional intelligence, particularly nursing, teacher education - but interestingly, social work, apart from a couple of very key articles by Harry Ferguson and Tony Morrison, and more recently the work of David Howe, there has not been a great deal explicitly making links between emotional intelligence and social work practice. So my interest, if you like, came from initially a different research project I was involved in which was looking at the writing of students whilst they were out on practice placements, and looking at, when they were writing about their practice, what they highlight as being the factors that lead them to make decisions. I mean I had a whole range of components of decision making - things like legislation and knowledge and values and so on and so forth, and one was emotions.

What was interesting was none of the students that we analysed the work of made any reference to their emotional reaction or the emotional content of their practice. So that was the kind of, if you like, the start of my interest in their emotions in social work - this idea that somewhere along the line social work students, in the case of my piece of research, somewhere along the line there was an uneasy relationship between emotions and social work. In terms of emotional intelligence, what prompted my interest in that as a concept was that there was a ready-made, highly visible concept being applied to a whole range of professions in context, and yet it seems perfectly positioned for social work practice, in the sense that if we accept that there is a strong relationship based aspect of practice where the relationship between social worker and service user is key and pivotal to really anything that then transpires of happens beyond the relationship, then the need for social workers to consider the emotional elements of their practice, and incorporate that into the concept of being a reflective practitioner …

IW The concept of empathy, I think as you point out in your paper, is not exactly new in social work literature, so has something gone wrong, or has that been lost somewhere in some cases?

RI I don’t think it has been lost - I think what I found in my PhD research that you mentioned at the outset, one of the findings, having surveyed and interviewed social workers from a Scottish local authority - one thing that has been a very strong message from social workers is that empathy is absolutely central to their relationships with service users, yet a similarly strong message from social workers was that when discussing or recording their practice, either in written form or in supervision, they often edited out those sort of emotional elements to their practice and presented themselves in a much more technical, rational, professional persona. So I don’t think it is that empathy and the communication of empathy within a social work relationship has gone - I think that somewhere along the line, it has become compromised by managerialist and technical, rational narratives in social work, which make … perhaps quite alarmingly, make emotions seem incompatible with the construct of social work as a profession, where, I suppose where I am coming from in terms of my interest in the research is that emotions and the relationship with service users, which by definition is an emotional entity, is absolutely at the core of social work … of the business of social work. So one of the sort of key things I think is not so much that empathy has gone away and my research is about reclaiming it, it is about trying to bring it back into the limelight, rather than it being somehow more marginalised in terms of what it is to be a social work professional.

IW I think in your paper you refer to the fact that the Victoria Climbie case might be hampered by the fact that practitioners felt constrained by a more … well the type of proceduralist approach that you referred to - would that be fair?

RI That is absolutely right. One of the … in Harry Ferguson’s article he talks of the kind of - why is it that social workers who ordinarily would behave in one particular way, in the case of Victoria Climbie and other tragedies, why is it they do not do what we expect them to do? And one of the sort of recurring themes is that the social workers are under stress, have high caseloads, poor quality of supervision - and that one of the sort of familiar aspects of practice that then becomes unexplored are those sort of feelings of fear, of anger, of disgust, of anxiety - that are common for social workers involved in very difficult cases. But where that is not seen as valid or appropriate or acceptable within supervision or within the written recording of practice, then by association those emotions are either neglected, suppressed, or ignored - and it’s at that point, that point where social workers find themselves unable to reflect meaningfully upon their practice and their emotional reactions, that social workers start to do things that we don’t expect them to do.

IW Yes, so you point out in your paper that there is a strong relationship between emotional intelligence and reflective practice …

RI Uh huh.

IW … and I think you suggest that the Munro Review of Child Protection did note that, you know, a better relationship or a more empathetic relationship might help that whole process of gathering information.

RI One of the really refreshing aspects of the Munro Report, which actually emerged sort of during the time of my … of me doing my PhD, so almost started to chime with what I was already very interested - one of the kind of key messages there is that those difficult, untangible aspects of the relationship between a social worker and a service user, or indeed the very positive and nurturing aspects of that relationship should be able to be identified, harnessed and recorded as a stream of information, as a means of motivating and directing the course of the social work intervention - rather than social workers having to edit those aspects out of their accounts of how and why they practice, in order for them to seek much more concrete, technical, evidence based explanations for their practice.

And quite rightly Munro highlights that to actually achieve such a goal requires an improvement and a focus on the quality of supervision and those opportunities for reflection. And I think, you know, that sits very comfortably within the construct of reflective practice, in that we understand reflective practice to be about considering not just what you did and why you did it, but how you felt about doing it; what made you choose to go down a particular line of enquiry or a particular line of action, and think about yourself in that process. So again, you know, in a sense that’s not “new”, but I think where there are pockets or example of poor or very routine case management style supervision, those elements get squeezed out. But all that is happening there is they are not getting squeezed out of the reality of practice, if you like the emotional labour of social work practice continues regardless of whether it is discussed or recorded. But it gets squeezed out of the presentation of that practice, if that makes sense.

IW Are you optimistic then that what seems to be essentially procedures and management styles will change or are changing to adopt a more, if you like, supporting and therapeutic role for the social worker?

RI I have a sort of mixed feeling - I would like to say I am optimistic. I think, having done this piece of research with a Scottish local authority, what I can see is that social workers, very hearteningly, still have a very strong sense of the importance of working in partnership with service users, about tuning into the world of service users in an empathetic manner, and a very strong message that social workers would value a therapeutic aspect to their supervision. And then another source of optimism is of course things like the Munro Report, the stuff coming out from the Social Work Taskforce, even going back a bit more in time - “Changing Lives”, and the sort of notion of an autonomous professional, which suggests that there is a focus on the expertise and the qualities of each individual social work professional. So in many ways all the messages are there, I think, from my piece of research, social workers are saying this is what they do in practice. But they are also equally saying that culturally they don’t feel safe or that they have the permissions to explore their emotions, particularly in the written presentation of their practice, but also it’s very, very dependent on the individual supervisor whether or not you get the quality of supervision that allows for reflection, and particularly reflection on emotions. So I think that what is required is a cultural shift in terms of … not just in terms of the reality of practice or messages from national narratives in policy, but actually something that explicitly raises the profile of emotions and the relationship aspects of practice, so that social workers feel permitted and safe to explore them, rather than those messages just sitting on pieces of paper, if you like - I think it’s that movement from national strategy to on the ground operationalization of it.

IW Thank you very much Richard, it’s a fascinating piece of research.

RI That’s great, thank you very much Ian.

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