Emotions and social work: a multinational exploration.

On 29 January, the West Midlands Teaching Partnership and Keele University hosted a workshop on emotions in social work practice for experienced social workers and social work students, led by Professor Alessandro Sicora from the University of Trento, Italy.

Professor Sicora’s work outlined that emotions have often been described as obstacles to effective social work. A detached attitude towards service users is still considered by many as one of the fundamental components of being a good practitioner in any helping profession. This idea excessively simplifies a more complex reality in which empathy, intuition and other ‘non-rational’ components appear, on the contrary, key ingredients of many successful helping interventions. Nevertheless, many social workers still consider their emotions as a source of shame and something to hide rather than a way to enrich their understanding of the world around them.

This presentation discussed the methodology and findings from a series of research workshops that involved social workers from England, Israel, Italy and South Africa. The workshops drew on the overarching principle, as evidenced by e.g. relationship-based practices, that the use of reflective strategies for exploring and sharing emotions seem to have great potential for improving professional relationships with service users.

Within the workshops, the concepts and approaches of ‘emotional intelligence’ by Daniel Goleman, ‘emotional agility’ by Susan David and ‘self-compassion’ by Kristin Neff and Chris Germer informed the discussion and an exercise in ‘synthetic reflexive writing’ (“bonsai” micro-stories) produced by the social workers to explore some of their professional experiences which involved strong emotions. Of the many classifications available for emotions, the one by Paul Ekman, has been used during the presented study.
Professor Sicora put forward some comparative examples of the outcomes in different national and cultural contexts, highlighting that the outcomes were surprisingly consistent. For example, organisational issues are often at the base of much of the anger felt by social workers. On the contrary, joy and sadness are strongly connected to the relationship with service users, pan-nationally. At the same time, reflecting on and sharing emotions, even the most negative ones, produce more resilient social workers in any context.


Latest article: Sicora, A. & Citroni, G.(2019). One, not one, or one hundred thousand? Voices of social workers in international comparison. Uno, nessuno o centomila? Voci di assistenti sociali in un confronto internazionale, European Journal of Social Work. >>link 50 free online copies: >>link 
Latest book: Sicora, A. (2017) Reflective practice and learning from mistakes in social work, Bristol: Policy Press. >>link
Workshop travel was funded by the European Union and West Midlands Teaching Partnership.