by D.J. Williams, Ph.D., MSW
New social workers often feel overwhelmed trying to remember and apply what seems to be mountains of information to become effective and successful practitioners. There is always more knowledge to learn and master. And most of us commonly feel somewhat inadequate as we begin working with clients.
I remember more than a dozen years ago, when I first began my social work education, wondering if I could ever gain the knowledge and many skills needed to help clients with serious issues. After completing my MSW, I began my social work career in the correctional system. As in all areas of social work, many of my cases were difficult, and I found myself utilizing knowledge from all aspects of my liberal education. Fortunately, I had excellent training and supervision, and I gradually became more comfortable in the development of my unique professional self. Still, the learning curve from student to professional appears to be very steep.
Today, as the director of social work at Idaho State University, I see many of our students struggle with this same transition into the world of practice. At the same time, our social work standards and competency expectations have increased since my days as a social work student. In brainstorming how to distill so much valuable information into a user-friendly framework to facilitate the professional growth of our students, I came up with the GO FAR! framework
I wanted to find an acronym that reflects both the science and art of social work, is easy to remember, and is a useful summary for students and new professionals but can also be applied by established social workers. GO FAR! is the result of this brainstorming, and our students, faculty, and community partners really like it. We now invite you to GO FAR! in the field of social work with us. GO FAR! stands for genuine, optimism, fun, accountability, and rigor.
G is for Genuine
Effective social workers are genuine and authentic people. We are honest and “real” with ourselves, clients, colleagues, and people with whom we associate. When we are real with other people, then they also tend to be real with us. Many social workers are drawn to the profession because they genuinely want to help people. This, of course, is a strength that is often associated with compassion, and both are key ingredients for a positive therapeutic alliance
Although most of us genuinely want to help, we sometimes tend to idolize teachers and professionals we perceive as being perfect at what they do. I remember being in awe of some of my teachers and clinical supervisors and wondering if I might ever be as adept as they were at navigating thorny clinical issues. Often, we copy the style of a mentor or two before later developing our own unique styles.
Encouraging genuineness, however, also means helping students recognize that each of us, including the very best teachers and clinicians, has strengths, limitations, problems, and personal issues, which is perfectly fine. Successful social workers accept themselves as they are, yet continually work on their own personal growth as human beings. Some of my mentors shared a few of their early mistakes and how they had learned and corrected these. Hearing these veteran social workers, who I greatly admired, share such stories was very helpful. As Harry Stack Sullivan used to say, “We are all more human than otherwise,” so allow yourself to be human, too, and appreciate the journey.
O Stands for Optimism
Years ago in my MSW program, one of my social work professors stated that an important thing we could always do to help clients is to give them hope. Although any situation possibly could get worse, most situations can improve by recognizing and utilizing strengths. Thus, strengths-based practice fits under the optimism dimension of GO FAR! Don’t forget to identify and utilize your own personal and professional strengths to become a more effective social worker. For some of us, it is easier to notice the strengths of others than our own useful strengths.
Optimism is also critical to increasing motivation. So, consistent with a strengths-based approach and a wealth of scholarship on human motivation, try to give lots of positive feedback to people with whom you work, including your clients and your colleagues. In our program at Idaho State University, we strive for approximately a 4:1 ratio of positive statements for every negative. Although punitive approaches tend to increase motivation for a short time, positivity is far more conducive to building lasting, intrinsic motivation and thus desired improvement. Frequent positive feedback keeps clients engaged and motivated, and it makes for a fun learning and work environment.
F Means To Have Fun!
Many of the people we work with struggle with serious issues, including debt, health issues, and legal problems. Clients sometimes can feel consumed by these problems and the constant grind of trying to get even their basic needs met. Social workers often manage high numbers of such cases, which amplifies our common need for adequate self-care. Choose modes of self-care that are personally fun and enjoyable. You will feel refreshed, and you’ll be more effective at your job.
You will GO FAR if you instill lots of fun wherever you can in your world, including your professional practice. Fun and professionalism are not mutually exclusive! There are numerous health benefits associated with fun and regular laughter, but unfortunately, as we move from childhood to adulthood, we are often socialized away from having as much fun. I think this is a big mistake. Add lots of fun into your world at any age! You’re likely to be happier and more satisfied, overall, with your life.
Years ago as a forensic social worker, I managed an aftercare clinic for parolees who were reintegrating back into the community. As part of their reintegration, they would attend group therapy once each week. Given their particular stage (community reintegration) in the correctional process, I believed it was important for them to report something they had done with family or friends during the previous week that was particularly fun or enjoyable. Group members seemed to really enjoy this.
At the beginning of one particular group experience after they had reported their fun experiences for the previous week, one of the members looked out the window and noticed that it was raining very hard outside. “We should all go outside and dance in the rain!” he suggested. After a short discussion and realizing that all members seemed excited about the possibility of playing in the downpour, I decided that this may be an unusual therapeutic and memorable moment for all of us. All these years later, I have forgotten nearly all of the other group sessions, but I will never forget that one! The entire group of men, myself included, went in the courtyard and danced, sang, and laughed in the pouring rain! We were all soaked through and through, but we came in with huge smiles on our faces. Everybody had a blast! That spontaneous experience modeled our ongoing emphasis on the need to laugh and have fun, and it certainly broke the monotony of a typical group experience. Several group members later mentioned that for them, that day when we all went and played in the rain had a more beneficial effect than any other single group experience of their aftercare programming.
Be ethical, of course, but look to have fun whenever you can! Have fun with your continuing education. Have fun with your clients and coworkers. Have fun with your self-care. Look to be creative! There may be an occasion or two when we cry with our clients, which is part of being genuine and compassionate, but every now and then we should laugh together, too.
A is for Accountability
If you are going to be successful at virtually anything, including social work, you must be accountable and responsible. Know your role in the organization and your responsibilities. Take accountability for your own personal and professional growth. Keep up on knowledge in your area of practice. Don’t be twenty (or more) years behind current knowledge in your field. Make sure that you know how to do your job, and look for ways to do it better and more efficiently.
Sometimes it is difficult for new social workers to let their clients be accountable. In other words, there is the temptation to overstep our boundaries and to do too much for clients. One of my wise forensics mentors once said, “You shouldn’t be working harder at your clients’ therapy than they are. Explore with them and give them opportunities, but they have to do their own work.”
Sometimes when discussing with my students the importance of maintaining boundaries while working with clients, I joke that “I have enough difficulty just trying to manage my own complicated life!” Thus, I don’t want to overstep boundaries and take on others’ responsibilities.
R is for Rigor
Rigor is the “meat and potatoes” of what we do. In GO FAR!, rigor refers specifically to the substance of professional practice—ethics, research, theory, and critical thinking. Each is important. Whatever you do as a practicing social worker, your work should be strongly shaped by social work ethics, research, theory, and critical thinking. Always be prepared to explain and defend why you do what you do in your practice.
I remember my first time called into court to testify in a forensic social work case. One of my clients had been released from prison and was in a community transitional program, but he had not made therapeutic progress in several weeks since his release. My colleagues and I tried everything we could think of to help him engage in programming, yet he remained resistant. Our recommendation was that he be terminated from the program because of lack of progress. He was going to be sent back to prison, but had disputed this decision that eventually went before a judge.
I was very nervous when I was called to the stand. The judge asked what I had done to help this client and why I believed that he had not made progress. I calmly and briefly explained the planned change process in social work, along with empirically-tested behavioral change theories, including the transtheoretical model (behavioral change generally) and the risk-need-responsivity model (specific to offender rehabilitation). I explained what, theoretically, we would expect to see behaviorally from this client if he was, indeed, making progress. I also noted that while I have ethical obligations to this particular client, my job as a forensic social worker includes the ethical responsibility to help protect the public. My assessment and best clinical judgment of our entire treatment team was that this client was a very high risk to reoffend. He was likely to commit another crime. The judge nodded and agreed, and that was it. Our entire team had applied rigor to that case, and our thorough practice and evaluation was very evident in the courtroom.
The GO FAR! framework provides a fun, focused, highly usable, mnemonic device for facilitating professional growth in social work. It may be especially helpful for new social workers who often feel overwhelmed with trying to remember and apply seemingly endless knowledge to social work practice, yet it can also be handy for students, established practitioners, administrators, and faculty members. The simple GO FAR! reminders to be genuine, liberally express optimism, have fun personally and professionally, be accountable, and practice with rigor function together to help structure professional knowledge and gently move it into the realm of practice. Try it out and have fun with it, and see how far you can go in your social work career.
Dr. D. J. Williams is the Director of Social Work at Idaho State University in Pocatello and the Director of Research for the Center for Positive Sexuality in Los Angeles. He holds an MS and an MSW degree from the University of Utah and a Ph.D. from the University of Alberta. For several years, Dr. Williams worked as a licensed clinical social worker in corrections. His expertise focuses on issues involving forensic social work, sexual diversity, and social justice.