When you study social work at any level, you’ll have a lot of theory to learn. You’ll need to attend a lot of classes and, in due course, you’ll go on to a placement or start bringing your new learning into your practice. Bridging the gap between classroom and practice is group work. Group work helps to give you the grounding you need to prepare for a range of interactions, which makes it a foundational part of most social work courses. Whether you take the traditional on-campus approach or study online, it’s a process which deserves a lot of attention and commitment. Below, we discuss what you can look forward to and how to make the most of it.
Practicing conversation skills
The single most important element in all social work practice is the ability to hold useful conversations. This underlies every assessment, negotiation and departmental interaction. As you train, you will need to build on your active listening skills, develop your persuasive abilities and learn how to convey sympathy as well as authority through your speech and body language. This is not a context in which theory can ever be sufficient. What you need more than anything is practice, and group work enables you to get that.
Whether your focus at the time is on working with colleagues or with clients, a great deal of what you will do as a social worker hinges on good teamwork. Working on joint projects with others during your studies lets you develop this too. You’ll become a better communicator at the same time as learning why that matters in a variety of situations. You’ll learn how to build trusting relationships with colleagues and how to recognize and correctly anticipate what others need from you. Most importantly, you’ll get better at listening, remembering and drawing out the most pertinent information from any exchange.
Preparing for discussions with other professionals
When first imagining what it might be like to be a social worker, most students tend to focus on one-to-one work with clients, but in practice social workers need to be able to connect with all kinds of different professionals. You will work with people in the education system, the justice system and healthcare, all with different priorities, methodologies and agendas. In group work, where everybody comes from a different background, you will be able to get a taste of how to adapt to this. Many people enter social work from different sectors and they can help you gain a deeper understanding of how those sectors work, in addition to providing useful connections.
Networking is valuable in social work just as it is in other sectors, and you never know where the contacts you make during your studies will end up. When you have a busy schedule and clients with urgent needs, it really helps to know who to speak to by name, or to be able to reference a mutual friend in order to speed things along. You’ll also know where to go for advice when you need to deal with something outside your experience.
Preparing for family discussions and community work
Even in situations where you are working with clients, group experience is very helpful, because there is often more than one person in the room. You might be tasked with working with an extended family as a unit, or with just one family member, but even in the latter case, other people often step in to share their views. Knowing how to manage situations like this is vital to making progress and preventing situations from descending into chaos — no matter how well-intentioned. By working in groups, you will improve your ability to maintain control of conversations and steer them in the desired direction, even when you and the person you are talking to are surrounded by potential distractions.
Role playing client interactions with your fellow students lets you explore different scenarios and consider the variety of contexts in which you may find yourself working. It will build up your confidence when it comes to working in dynamic environments, and you can draw on the experiences of group members to reflect on different types of family and community environments. Listening to the experiences of others will make you more aware of the wide range of life experiences, and less vulnerable to making mistakes by projecting rather than truly listening.
Recognizing when you’re going too far
When you’re first starting out as a social worker, it’s easy to get excited about particular approaches and push too hard. You can also get overwhelmed by difficult cases or highly emotional clients, and find it hard to maintain a balanced, neutral approach. Using group work as an opportunity to practice means that your peers are able to observe your approach and let you know when they see a problem developing.
When you are the one doing the observation, you’ll have the opportunity to learn from other students’ mistakes. Sometimes it’s easier to realize what you’re doing wrong yourself by observing it in other people’s behavior. You’ll also pick up on things they do well which you can draw on in your own work. When you role play as the client, you’ll be able to explore different techniques from the other side, helping you to emphasize with clients’ experiences of the process and develop a better idea of which methods are likely to be best suited to various individuals.
No matter how well your groups work together, there will be times when disagreements arise. This is a good thing because it gives you the chance to improve your negotiation skills, which will be vital in the field. You will learn to tease out the reasons why other people see things differently and interact with them in a way which is respectful and sympathetic, increasing your chances of changing their minds. You will also learn to be flexible and open in how you think about their arguments, increasing the chances of them changing yours. You will stop feeling uncomfortable about the prospect of giving way, recognizing that getting it right is more important than looking clever.
Sometimes finding a way to agree seems impossible and it’s important to respect that too. In situations like this, you can lay down some ground rules around respect, and then talk with a view to finding other areas in which you do agree, identifying possible workarounds where you can’t and focusing on productive discussion rather than on who wins or loses.
Improving cultural competence
One factor which has a major influence on perspective, and on other aspects of how we engage in conversation, interpret what others have to say and organize our priorities, is cultural background. If you are a majority White American who mostly interacts with other people from similar backgrounds, this may not be immediately obvious to you, because you’ll have been able to get through most of your life just fine on the assumption that everybody operates within the same cultural framework as you. However, if you are a member of a smaller cultural group, you will already have had to learn how to adapt to deal with people from different backgrounds, whether consciously or unconsciously. This is called cultural competence.
When you are out in the field as a social worker, you will often be called upon to work with clients whose cultural backgrounds differ from your own. While everything begins with respect, you will need to make an active effort to understand them fully and anticipate their needs. Working in multicultural groups during your studies will help you to improve your cultural competence. Pay close attention to differences in expectations, ask questions and make sure that you really listen.
Different approaches to learning
Practically every student encounters moments where it just feels impossible to understand what’s being taught in class, while other students seem to find it easy. People connect with learning in different ways due to differences in personality and past experiences. The great thing about group work is that by bringing students together, it provides an opportunity for them to help each other. When your peers explain how they understand the subject, they’ll do so in different ways, giving you new opportunities to connect with it.
In situations where you’re the one doing the helping, you’ll get another kind of learning experience. Understanding how other people struggle will help you to broaden your ways of thinking. It also provides valuable practice for your future work with clients and fellow professionals who might need you to rephrase things or come at them from different angles to understand them. In addition, this kind of peer-to-peer learning experience helps to build empathy.
Mutual emotional support
Even when you have great skills and you’re really at the top of your game, there’s no denying that social work can be emotionally exhausting. You will learn to set boundaries and manage your emotions, but there will still be times when the situations you are dealing with get to you. There will even be times when you are simply fatigued due to an intense workload. When this happens, it’s important to reach out for help. Your fellow professionals will understand and will be there to support you. They will also be able to recognize when a problem runs deeper and you are in need of time off or professional therapy.
Working closely in groups over the duration of your studies will help you to develop good instincts for when you need support, and for when other people do. This will help you to develop and contribute to effective support networks in your future working life. It’s an approach which is at its most effective when you’re under pressure because that’s when, with others’ help, you can get a clearer idea of what your personal vulnerabilities are, what warning signs you can look out for and what type of support is most beneficial for you.
In person and online group work
Group work doesn’t have to take place in person in order to be effective. Increasingly, social workers interact with clients and colleagues online, especially where there are health risks involved or when they are required to operate over large geographical areas, so it’s useful to know how to function in both worlds. Florida State University College of Social Work offers programs online with a specific view to helping social workers adapt to new approaches and systems, as well as preparing them for leadership roles, and group work is an important part of its program. The Florida State University Online Master of Social Work degree ensures that students are able to practice clinical social work meaning they can learn how to communicate through group activities and individual learning. Students can also work through clinical social work practices to ensure they are prepared with the best interpersonal interview practices.
Working in online groups requires slightly different skills. When only your face is visible, you’ll need to use expressions a lot more in order to communicate effectively. If all your group work is online, it’s a good idea to position your camera in different ways during different meetings so that you can still practice using body language. Many people find that they become more anxious about silences during online conversations, but this is a good thing, because learning how to deal with silences is an important part of developing your interviewing skills and encouraging clients to tell you things which they may be hesitant about.
Taking the next steps
Whether online or in-person, group work teaches you skills that you simply can’t learn in classes. Social work is all about people and you need to spend time focused on people to get to the heart of it. Role playing, sharing ideas and developing projects together will prepare you for going into the field, and your different backgrounds and experiences will help you to acquire a depth of understanding which goes beyond theory alone. You’ll improve your interviewing and negotiating skills, develop the confidence you need for successful advocacy and improve your cultural competence, all while building your network. You’ll also discover one of the best things about the profession — the way that social workers can support each other.