Paper Review: Emotional Intelligence, Emotion and Social Work : Context, Characteristics, Complications, and Contribution

This post is about this article:

‘Emotional Intelligence, Emotion and Social Work: Context, Characteristics, Complications and Contribution, The British Journal of Social Work, Volume 37, Issue 2, February 2007, Pages 245–263, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcl016 by Tony Morrison

Introduction

This paper looks at the way ’emotional intelligence’ may link to social work practice by aligning it’s use with five core social work tasks ‘engagement of users, assessment and observation, decision-making, collaboration and cooperation and dealing with stress’

Context

The paper starts with a definition of emotional intelligence as

Being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations: to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to emphasize and to hope’

p246 – quoting from Goleman 1996

The author sets up the links between emotional intelligence and social work (specifically social work with children) by explaining different models of emotional intelligence in different settings and applying them to social work. This is a discussion paper rather than describing research so the methodology is based on reflecting on literature relating to emotional intelligence and linking it to social work settings and environments.

Emotional intelligence literature emerged from management and business studies. The author as an academic teaching social work practice, found the literature useful in describing some of the skills and attributes necessary for competent social work. He draws links between literature about emotional intelligence and social work practice and drew this together with a study in the US about nursing practice (Benner 2001) and developing competencies in nursing which found that the emotional state of the nurse could impact on the quality of patient care. It was this ‘intuitive’ aspect of care which the author tries to link with good social work, beyond technical knowledge of practice.

He draws on literature reflecting the danger of social work becoming a series of skills to be learnt rather than a way of understanding to do undertake tasks skilfully. This is linked with the move towards managerialism in social work. Ironic, then, or perhaps not, that there has been the turn to the language and concepts of management.

By presenting emotional intelligence as learnable, it therefore becomes teachable which is key within a social work department in a university.

Learning and gaps

In looking at core social work skills identified by the author, he refers to them in the context of emotional intelligence. With engagement he refers to the lack of choice that people coming into social work services would have and why the initial contact may be filled with ambivalence or fear. Moving to assessment and observation, he relates to the importance on inter and intra-personal skills and the need for sensitive and responsive assessment as poor communication can lead to poor assessment. Part of this process is about understanding and interpreting emotions on both sides of the conversation that is an assessment.

Regarding decision-making, the author refers back to the challenge of objective (or ‘professional’) judgement as if there is a pretence that emotion does not play a role. I’d argue there is no such thing as objective judgement in social work because we have to bring ourselves into every decision we make but that’s more about the research work I am doing and why I chose it. Decisions cannot be made without understanding the place of emotion.

With collaboration and co-operation, he refers to emotion as a representation of the collective experience, including institutional experiences. Social work exists within the institutions in which we work and we need to understand organisational dynamics to work effectively. We also need to work with difference. This is where the author, somewhat tenuously, in my view, brings in the need to work with diverse groups and ensure we tackle and address discriminatory attitudes.

Values and knowledge about discriminatory forces have to be integrated with inter-personal skills, if practitioners are to be able not only to identify, but also challenge, such forces appropriately

p258

Finally, the author turns to the necessarily social work skill of dealing with skill and developing coping strategies. He relates the ability of social workers to seek help themselves when they might be approaching burnout as a key tenet of emotional intelligence. Practitioners who are able to create positive social and professional networks of support will more likely thrive and he links this to relevant research.

Use in practice

This paper is a literature-based study linking the work around emotional intelligence to the attributes needed for social work practice, particularly focusing on social work with children. It is an interesting approach and he has drawn some useful links identifying how the context of writing can be regarded from a different angle to have professional relevance. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced that pulling in management think is always helpful in understanding professional practice within social work. We need to ensure our language and how we describe what we do is not tied up with the latest zeitgeist management talk. However, where there are useful elements to glean it is important that we do not ignore them.

Regarding practical learning from this, there were two aspects that I thought I would take with me from Monday morning. One was about building supportive networks personally and professionally in order to ensure I am looking after my own support and development needs in order to thrive effectively as a social worker and secondly ensuring I have an awareness of the role my emotion plays in my report-writing and assessment as this has an enormous impact on the lives of those I am working with.

Conclusion

This was an accessible paper which drew together strands of literature to extract the core of good social work as separate from the ability to carry out social work tasks or have a good handle on social work skills. In some ways, I see the emotional intelligence as being linked to practice wisdom, as it is sometimes called, the sense of instinctiveness to make judgement quickly and remain open to challenge, learning and change.

The author expresses concern about the growth of managerialism but hope that by capturing the essence of social work in a concept which is basically teachable seeing ways forward for the profession. Personally, I think time and space is needed to develop the capacity for understanding the role emotion and individual subjectivity play in important social work tasks which is why reflection is necessary. Maybe less fast-track and more slow development will build the emotional intelligence necessary for good practice.

Author: Vicky

Social worker based in London

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