by Jon Talebreza-May, Ph.D., LCSW
The value of "the importance of human relationships" is so much a part of what we as social workers do that it often goes unnoticed, yet it is the foundation upon which everything else is built.
In my own work as a social work practitioner and professor of social work, I know that when I focus on technique or facts and forget to connect with those around me, I fail. When I trust myself, relax, and enjoy the company I keep, the job gets done. I learned this early in my career, when interviewing an elderly Hispanic couple. I practiced the technique of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with perfection, but alas, I forgot to attend to my audience, whose personal culture was heavily invested in the importance of human relationships. They left and never came back, and they taught me a lesson vital to helping future clients and teaching future students - attend to the relationship, stay in the present moment, and everything else will fall into place.
We rely on the strength of human relationships to survive and thrive. We are born into the world vulnerable, weak, and in need of physical and emotional nurturing. Immediately, we reach out to secure our first relationships. These original attachments are key to shaping a lifetime of connections to others. The strength of the original human relationship provides a path into the future, helping to define what is possible.
We also leave the world vulnerable and weak and, just as in infancy, we reach out for support from those around us. The level of support we get will often be based on the strength of the relationships we have created throughout our lives. Lessons from the dying include the bedrock understanding that our illusions of invincibility and independence just don’t stand up to the truth of the need for connection.
Social workers support the strengthening of human relationships with those who are being born and those who are dying. The years between birth and death - when we grow, learn, create a life, and see our life carried forward through our children or those we touch - are characterized by the same need for interdependence. In these times of making a life, social workers are there to assess the strength of our connections to each other. More than any other helping field, this is social work’s calling.
That calling is our territory as social workers. The best social work students, practitioners, and teachers are not those who are encyclopedic in their knowledge or flawless in their technique (if there could be such a thing), but those who show that each and every person they meet is the center of the universe at that moment. When we do that, we create and strengthen relationships, and our goals are met. May we always look into the eyes of our clients or students and see that beyond what they are asking in the moment, what they want more than anything is our connection.
Professor May is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Pacific University’s MSW program and has practiced social work with individuals, families, and groups for more than 10 years.