Social Work: When assertiveness and Reflective Practice protects social workers from oppressive clients and their

families .

Subjective empowerment, political correctness and the need to be agency -compliant has led to some frontline practitioners becoming victims of their own practice as shrew, manipulative service users and their families exploit and abuse lope holes in myriads of practice codes. How many times have reports by front line staff mentioned incidences of client s or their families threatening to report them to their line managers or agencies simply because these workers will not comply with their sometimes irrational demands. So how can social workers address such difficult clients? Unfortunately, while textbooks, discourses, conceptualisations and theories may seek to provide supposedly the best ways of addressing what is within all definition, µsocial workers being oppressed or disempowered, the primary constraint in applying a one-packet-fits-all approach is that, neither the clients are a homogeneous entity with identical problems, nor do the social workers have a holy grail to tackle client aggressions. Additionally, the essential need to take into consideration; context, the client¶s circumstance and other factors in attempts to analyse a nd address staff µoppression¶ by clients or their families make intervention increasingly problematic. Furthermore, prevalent prejudice against social workers which readily stereotype and label them as incompetent, bullies, baby snatchers, etc means that, in most instances of µassault¶, thanks to significant socialisation from the media, social workers are predominantly presumed guilty without trial. Within this culture of ; µdo you dam and don¶t you dam ¶, social workers therefore need to be ethically and legally knowledgeable to justify their practice. Faced with difficult clients, a µ self-reflective¶ social worker who understands both the ethical and legal requirements for effective and appropriate practice will use µAssertiveness Skills¶ to address power-wielding (bullies) clients. Assertiveness in front line social work practice is a way of thinking and behaving that allows the social worker to stand up for his or her rights while respecting the rights of clients. Some aggressions from clients or their families in social work interventions can be explained on the fact that; While aggressive clients or their families are willing to defend th eir own rights, some are competent and shrew-enough to exploit both ethical and legal loopholes in relevant practice codes to infringe or abuse the rights of social workers.

Although the appropriate assessment should give social workers a critical insight into the presenting circumstance of the client or their families, unfortunatel y social workers formation does not endow practitioners with telepathy to foresee potential aggression from client; thus the essential need for individuality, reflective practice and continuous assessment in intervention.

Client empowerment versus the social worker¶s assertiveness in interventions In the course of my interaction s with social workers in frontline practice, I often asked how they would describe their profession or duties. One articulate student on placement summed up her work experience as; ³Social workers are like medics in a social conflict zone; expected to attend to all casualties with minimum resources. Even in the face of attack or aggression we are expected to wave the olive branch ; employ any natural or conventional approaches in self defence and so ciety will vilify, judge and sentence you for crime against humanity. You see, society expects a social worker to be µJOAT¶- Jack Of All Trade; Master of all and also scapegoat or victim to all.´

Elaborating on her assertion, she went on to say;


³During assessments and interpersonal interactions, I am like a chair person;
able to actively listen, then summarise, paraphrase to make sure that both I and my clients understand and know decisions taken from the same perspective. In volatile circumstances, I act as a conflict mediator with the non-partisan but assertive ability to mediate and facilitate conflict resolution with the limited option to evoke relevant emergency actions including; sectioning, court orders, police interventions as deemed appropriate t o the presenting issue. Predominantly, I am like an athlete expected to perform but with my hands tied behind my back. This is often the case when, because of resource and other constraints my care plans do not meet the actual needs I indentify during assessments. Similarly, unlike in order professions; like the judiciary where people can be charge d with contempt of court, or the police where suspects can be arrested and charged with obstructing or resisting arrest, my most effective protective tool is assertiveness and the ability to continually risk-assess my client and context. You see, social workers are not just µJOAT¶ -Jacks Of All Trades, society expects us to be masters of all of them without deserving of the praise showered on other professionals wh en they excel in their practice. Assertiveness in Reflective Practice is what keeps us µSAS¶- Sane And Safe.´

Critical analysis of the abuse of social workers by their clients or families give plausible reasons to suggest that, d espite

the myriad of debates, conceptualisations and lectures on empowerment in social work as; µan enabling process that enable social workers to work alongside clients to enable them play active part in enhancing their life chances; some practitioners erroneously perceive empowerment as µgiving power to clients´. It is within the latter context that social workers can become victims of their own subjective practice. A social worker, who hands

power to the client, looses the ability to be efficient, effective and appropriate in interventions. Within the current social work climate where interventions are set against the backdrop of human rights, social workers can objectively achieve legally and ethically-compliant outcomes, even when facing difficult clie nts by being reflectively assertive. Working predominantly with vulnerable people or their families, the assertive social workers apart from believing in their own rights are committed to fighting for, and preserving those of their clients. Indeed, as is often the case, rather than vie for compliments, assertiveness in social work means that social workers are able to recognise when their rights or those of clients are being violated and to fight for them. Additionally, in inter personal inter reactions, b y being assertive; the social worker is able to consistently achieve mutual outcomes by objectively empowering the client. While most text books may not emphasise assertive skills as core to effective social work practice, critical analysis shows that this core skill underpins most intervention decisions in practice.

So how can a social worker be assertive in front line practice?
Whether in proving clients with vital information to access relevant services themselves, or directly approaching agencies, statutory organisations or other professionals to advocate on behalf of less able clients, being assertive while remaining reflective in practice will significantly enhance more rational and sustainable outcomes. Let¶s take a simple case study. Mrs A; a 30 year mother of two turned up at the social service office, with her children and with her belongings in a shopping trolley. Shortly after, a man of 32 and later identified as her husband arrived swearing and even threatening the staff (social workers) not to interfere in his family¶s or private affairs. In such a seemingly volatile situation, it is the confidence derived from competence in one¶s profession and its associated legal and ethical procedures and processes; backed by the assertiveness to apply them objectively and reflectively that will produce positive outcomes. In this particular case, the social worker was able to use assertive listening to let both Mr and Mrs A know that she wanted to understand and help resolve their problem mutually and impatailly rather than being partisan to ether party. Within this context, the social workers critical skill in conflict resolution or management enabled her to confidently, impartially and assertively cope with both difficult and aggressive clients. While assertively listening to understand the individual perspectives is not synonymous with agreeing, being assertive means that while the

social worker was prepared to listen, understand and attempt to initiate procedures that might lead to a resolution of the family¶s difficulties, the social worker was equally prepared to take emergency measures; including the option to seek the services of the police in case of assessed physical danger to her person, other staff, either feuding party or the public. With Mrs A shouting; ³save me and my children from this monster´ and later ³if you don¶t act, I will report you to your superior´ a subjective and non-assertive judgement would have led the social worker to prejudge Mr A as guilty based of Mrs A¶s manipulative ability. Indeed, overtly, Mr A¶s rather shouting and seemingly irrational and abusive attitude towards the social worker were compelling reasons to presume his guilt or was he. Through reflective practice and employing critical conflict management skills (effective communication, impartiality and ... ) and using less confrontational phrases like, ; -look I like to help you but shout wouldn¶t get us anywhere - I like to hear and understand your views... - I am confused by your stand, could you tell me about... - How would you like me to help you or how would you like us to resolve this problem This approach actually calm down Mr A who was then able to provide a detail and rational account of the presenting circumstance showing the Mrs A, a client with mental difficulty had snatched the children and some belongings from theory flat and heading for nowhere in particular. Assertive actions by the social worker meant that while Mr A was supported to in caring for the two children at home, Mrs A was assessed and is receiving the relevant mental health support service to enable her to continue to live with the family. In interpersonal interaction, it is vital to In resolving this potentially volatile situation, the social worker was not able to combine effective communication skills (active listening) and assertiveness skills to achieve a mutual outcome that ensured Mrs A¶s action did not expose or predispose the children in particular to the risk of significant harm or danger but she was competent-enough to balance the clients right with her duty of care. In a nut shell she did not allow herself to be either bullied or manipulated by any of the parties. She was comprehensively assertive.


Hollistcally in social work intervention, assertiveness is not necessarily synonymous with verbal communication but may include eyes, facial expression, personal appearance, posture and gestures. Experience of working with power wielding clients show that, nervous and non -assertive behaviours communicate to cunning clients that they can both ignore the social workers directives. Where clients are judged as bullies in social; work interventions, they are able to see timidity as signs of weakness and at worst insincerity and jeopardizes your credibility. Holistically, to be assertive in social work intervention, the social worker while respecting the rights of clients, need to be in control of the intervention agenda


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