Danielle Turney on Relationship-Based Social Work

Danielle Turney is Senior Lecturer in Social Work and Director of the Post-Qualifying Specialist Award in Social Work with Children and Young People at the University of Bristol, UK. Here, she answers some questions about her new book, Relationship-Based Social Work: Getting to the Heart of Practice, which she co-edited with Gillian Ruch and Adrian Ward. 

What is the theory behind relationship-based social work, and what does it actually mean to place ‘the relationship’ at the heart of practice?

A number of different theoretical positions can contribute to an understanding of relationship-based practice. Our focus in the book is mainly on psycho-social, psycho-dynamic and systemic approaches but as some of the authors demonstrate, other approaches also offer interesting insights – for example ideas of ‘liquid modernity’, drawn from sociological theory, provide a new perspective on the experiences of refugee families whose lives are ‘on the move’.

Placing the relationship at the heart of practice means recognising that, as we suggest in the Introduction, ”despite all the continuing upheavals in policy and procedure, social work [will] always begin and end with a human encounter between two or more people” and that this encounter, or relationship as it develops, is the medium through which the social work task can be carried out. Social work is never a neutral activity but can, at its best, offer a vulnerable or distressed person the experience of being valued, supported and understood – perhaps for the first time.

Taking this approach to practice is not to pretend that it is always easy to establish effective helping relationships, particularly with people who have not chosen their involvement with social work, or that the element of ‘care’ that is part of the relationship masks the element of ‘control’ that often permeates the social worker/service user encounter. But is does ensure that thought is given to the complexity of people’s lives, and to understanding their internal and external worlds – to trying to engage with the whole person, in inclusive and empowering ways.

What are the biggest structural and personal barriers to placing the relationship at the heart of practice?

The biggest structural barriers are probably time, targets, and systems and structures that appear to prioritise procedure over direct work with vulnerable or distressed people. We are not suggesting that formal procedures and frameworks for practice should be abandoned but many commentators, researchers and practitioners feel that the pendulum has swung too far and that systems that should be supporting practice are, rather, constraining it. Take, for example, some of the concerns that have been expressed about the Integrated Children’s System: while an electronic information management and recording system is potentially a great aid to practice, one of the unintended consequences of its introduction seems to have been to tie social workers to their computers and to significantly reduce the amount of time they have available to spend with service users. Most practitioners probably went in to social work because they were interested in people rather than paperwork so, while good records are clearly necessary for practice, an over-emphasis on this aspect of work can leave them feeling frustrated and de-skilled.

Pressure to meet targets, particularly in relation to assessment, similarly contributes to a situation where completion of forms can become almost an end in itself, and it can feel like the person for whom the assessment was initiated has become increasingly peripheral. In terms of personal barriers, I suspect that the less time practitioners spend in direct work with service users, the less confident they then feel about their ability to do this work. So a kind of vicious circle can be set up where it is easier and less stressful to concentrate on completing forms and managing systems than it is to keep on trying to make the space and develop the skills for focused relationship-based work, and those skills in turn become increasingly hard to hang on to.

A lot can depend on the organisational context within which practitioners are working and whether relationship-based work is supported and valued or seen as a possibly useful but dispensable aspect of practice. It is important to recognise that, while working in and with relationships can be immensely rewarding and positive, it is also potentially time consuming, demanding and emotionally challenging. So if we are to take seriously a commitment to this kind of practice, we need to ensure that practitioners are both adequately trained and supported. One of the themes of the book is the critical importance of reflective, case-based supervision and I think all the authors would identify this as a necessary component of effective relationship-based work.

What constitutes a ‘good’ relationship between a social worker and a service user?

Service users have identified a number of things that they value in terms of their contact with practitioners and that contribute to a good relationship; these include: empathy, warmth, respect, honesty and reliability. Interestingly, it is not always essential that service user and social worker agree (though that may certainly make it easier to achieve whatever outcomes have been identified!). If these ‘core conditions’ have been met, the relationship may still be viewed positively.

What kinds of people or cases benefit most from relationship-based social work practice?

When we first started thinking about the kinds of material we wanted to include in this book, one thing became clear very early on: relationship-based practice does not ‘belong’ to social work with any one service user group, situation or setting! As I believe the different authors have demonstrated, the attempt to ‘engage’ and to establish a working relationship – to try and make a connection with another human being – is a prerequisite for effective practice in any setting. But how the relationship is established and managed, and what it is for, will depend on the context and the particular people involved: it needs the practitioner to be working in a thoughtful way, to build a relationship that is ‘fit for purpose’. The kind of helping relationship established in the course of a Duty interview is different from that established, possibly over a number of years, in residential work. But the principles of practice – that the worker is honest, reliable, able to respond empathically, and so on – remain the same.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

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