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Top Skills Needed to be a Social Worker

 |  5 Min Read

Social workers wear many hats—advocate, organizer, facilitator, counselor, case manager—and they need a well-rounded set of skills to be successful. Although it may seem that the diversity of social work as a practice requires an almost limitless range of knowledge and expertise, a social worker can function well in most situations after developing a core set of important skills.

If you’re thinking about becoming a social worker, you would do well to focus on developing the following skills that are important for anyone in social work.

Active Listening

Active listening skills show that you are engaged in the conversation and genuinely care about hearing what the other person has to say. For social workers, active listening is a vehicle for establishing trust and respect with clients. Building trust makes it easier for social workers to discover details about their clients and makes them more receptive to solutions or referrals made by the social worker.

Critical Thinking

Part of what makes social work so challenging—and rewarding—is the fact that each individual or group is dealing with a unique set of circumstances and requires a unique solution. That’s why critical thinking skills are very important in social work. After identifying the nature of the problems experienced by their clients, social workers use critical and creative thinking skills to develop practical solutions. Social workers use logic, analysis, and creativity to identify the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches and find a solution for each case.

Information Gathering

Clients are not always forthcoming with their personal history, current circumstances, or many of the details social workers need to make informed decisions. Being able to effectively gather and interpret social, personal, environmental, and health information is an important part of social work. That’s why the best social workers are the ones who know how to find and identify essential information.


Social workers typically manage multiple clients at a time. Providing case management and psychosocial support to multiple clients requires a great deal of organization skills. Casework is multifaceted, involving documentation, networking, billing, etc. Good organization skills allow social workers to stay on top of their clients’ needs and ensure that nothing “falls through the cracks.” Oversight resulting from disorganization can lead to oversights and negative outcomes for the individuals, groups, and families involved, which means this is a top skill and one of the most beneficial personal qualities for social workers to develop.

Time Management

Related to organizational skills, social workers must also have strong time-management practices. Because social workers juggle multiple cases and administrative responsibilities at once, they must effectively manage their time to ensure all clients receive the care, attention, and service they need. Time management skills also play a role in preventing “burnout” from being overworked.

Boundary Setting

Social workers must establish and maintain professional relationships with their clients to avoid taking the emotional stress of the job home — intentionally or unintentionally. Establishing boundaries early between yourself and your clients will help create a healthier work-life balance, which in turn makes you a more effective professional.


Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s situation, and then be able to understand what that person may be experiencing. This ability is very important in the field of social work. Having empathy helps social workers develop strong relationships with their clients and determine exactly what they need based on their unique experiences and circumstances. Although social workers typically have natural empathetic qualities, this skill requires practice, and should be continually sharpened through empathy training and development exercises.


Social workers communicate in different ways and with different people every day. They talk with clients and their families, but also with insurance companies, health care providers, co-workers, and others involved in their clients’ lives. Good communication skills help social workers have difficult conversations with people in the midst of challenging life circumstances. The ability to speak and write clearly and concisely is a great benefit to social workers, especially those dealing with individuals or groups that struggle to understand things due to emotional stress or learning disabilities.


Social workers must establish achievable treatment goals with their clients, but getting them to take action can be another challenge altogether. The ability to inspire, invite/encourage, or even excite others to act is invaluable to any social worker since it can mean the difference between a positive outcome and inaction/stagnation/delay. Social workers must learn different methods of motivation so they can affect clients with different personalities, experiences, and objections.


Social workers are often part of a much larger team of service providers. For example, medical social workers are part of a team comprised of care providers and administrators attached to a specific client. For this reason, the ability to work with others is essential. Social workers must be able to negotiate, compromise, and coordinate with others to ensure that a client’s needs are addressed.


As the voice of their clients, social workers routinely advocate on behalf of the individuals, groups, and families they serve. Advocacy involves speaking out and acting in the best interest of others. Social workers may advocate to create new programs, revise outdated policies, or expand existing programs to ensure that their clients obtain the treatment and services they need. Advocacy is a powerful means of bringing about positive change and empowering people to take agency in their lives.

Do you want to develop the skills necessary to be a leader in social work? The online Master of Social Work (MSW) from Our Lady of the Lake University will give you the foundation for a long, rewarding career helping society and fighting for those in need. Request more information or call 855-275-1082 to learn more about OLLU’s online MSW.

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