8 Essential Social Work Skills and Traits

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Social worker conducts a family counseling session

The social work field is both dynamic and demanding, often requiring practitioners to fill many roles over the course of their careers. Every day, over 650,000 social workers assist more than 10 million individuals in the U.S. to make significant contributions to the strength and vitality of families and communities, according to the National Association of Social Workers. To make a lasting positive impact, social workers rely on a diverse range of technical skills and emotional competencies, alongside their formal academic training. While most social work skills can be learned through graduate programs, such as a Master of Social Work, some are developed internally over years of practice and work experience.

For students and mid-career professionals alike, understanding the core skills, traits, and competencies used by social workers is crucial for building a successful career. To that end, here are eight social work skills every aspiring practitioner should work on developing.

  1. Active listening

Active listening is one of the most important soft skills for social workers, as it allows them to understand the specific needs of their clients and build productive relationships. By being attentive, social workers can establish a sense of trust and mutual respect that is crucial for helping individuals in need, especially if they’re dealing with addiction, mental illness, poverty, or discrimination. Of course, active listening goes well beyond the verbal: The ability to identify emotional distress in a person’s body language can guide social workers’ communication styles and professional recommendations.

  1. Communication skills

Social workers communicate with people from a diverse range of professional and cultural backgrounds, including clients, co-workers, care providers, government officials, and members of nonprofit organizations. As such, the ability to adjust your written and verbal communications is essential to effective collaboration when multiple stakeholders are involved. This includes adapting your tone, body language, and writing style to accommodate different audiences and settings. Social workers must also carefully document what they did for their clients and create detailed reports that outline their professional recommendations.

  1. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to identify with another person’s situation on an intellectual and emotional level. Most social workers are naturally empathetic, having joined the field because of their deep concern for those in need and a desire to help alleviate emotional stress. This trait allows social workers to build strong relationships by forming genuine connections with their clients, and locate solutions that can improve people’s lives in tangible ways. While empathy is often an innate trait, according to Psychology Today, social work practitioners can sharpen their skills through training and development exercises.

  1. Boundary setting

Although empathy is a core trait of successful social workers, it can also lead them to take the stress of their work home with them. Self-care is extremely important for professionals in this field, as they regularly assist individuals who are struggling with addiction, mental and physical illnesses, and poverty, which can take a toll on their emotional well-being. Setting boundaries between yourself and clients can not only help alleviate work-related stress, but it can also make you a more effective and compassionate ally without impacting your health.

  1. Critical thinking

One reason social work can be challenging is that every individual or group deals with a unique set of circumstances, many of which call for specific solutions. After identifying the nature of a client’s issues, social workers use their critical thinking skills to identify social services, government programs, and support structures that will have the greatest positive impact. This often requires the use of logic, analysis, and creativity, as social work practitioners must be able to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches to similar problems.

  1. Time management

Social workers have busy schedules, which can make it difficult to find a healthy work-life balance. Professionals in this field handle multiple cases and administrative tasks simultaneously, making time management an essential part of their daily routine. In addition to budgeting their time wisely, social workers must ensure all clients receive the care, attention, and emotional support they need without unnecessary delays. This often necessitates written schedules that outline all aspects of their workday, from client meetings and interventions to in-office tasks like applying for social programs and drafting reports.

  1. Advocacy

In many cases, social workers advocate on behalf of individuals, families, and communities that are underserved by government and social services. To ensure their clients get the support they need, social work practitioners regularly call for the creation of new programs, the revision of existing policies, and the development of community-based support frameworks. Advocacy is a powerful tool for bringing about positive change and empowering individuals to overcome challenges in their lives. As such, aspiring social workers should cultivate communication and interpersonal skills that will help them affect real change at the local, state, and federal levels.

  1. Cultural awareness

Working with clients from different socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds requires a great deal of openness and respect. Social workers use their sense of cultural awareness to help inform their interpersonal relationships and communicate effectively with a diverse range of individuals. While having strong opinions is only natural, allowing them to bleed into your work can make clients comfortable. Social workers should strive to remain objective in their judgments and focus on finding actionable solutions that will enrich the lives of the people, families and communities they serve.

Develop key social worker skills and traits with an MSW from the University of Nevada, Reno

Do you want to develop the skills, traits, and expertise necessary to become a leader in the social work field? The online Master of Social Work from the University of Nevada, Reno can help you gain the knowledge and experience you need to address complex problems in diverse settings, including underserved inner-city and rural communities. With a curriculum focused on scientifically supported research and multi-disciple competencies, you can gain real-world insight into key social work issues and practices.

To find out more, explore the online MSW degree page or reach out to an admission representative today.

Recommended Readings:

Types of Social Workers and What They Do

What Jobs Can You Get with an MSW Degree?



Overview of the Social Work Profession by the National Association of Social Workers

Important Job Skills for Social Workers by The Balance Careers

Social Workers by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Can Empathy Be Taught? by Psychology Today