Social work and the human givens

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The purpose of this paper is to introduce an approach to learning about the emotional dimension of practice to enhance this and for you to identify routes to professional development and sources of support. There is a strong tradition of writing about the ‘use of self’ in social work. The debate spans the scientific research based perspectives, the view that social work is an art and the view that social work is a political value based enterprise. These perspectives may be combined in practice. The approach taken here is informed by key authors writing about emotional intelligence. This brief outline offers some basic ways to approach the area.

This approach begins with the view that all things which live are born with needs to fulfil if they are to survive and flourish, and with resources to enable them to meet those needs. A plant needs particular nutrients, a certain amount of water, energy from the sun, and ways of protecting itself and propagating itself. It may meet its needs through its network of roots and leaves, through specific ways of capturing and maintaining water supplies (such as the leathery leaves of a cactus), through toxins and spikes to ward off predators, and through bright colours and scents to attract pollinators. As well as these innate resources, it is dependent on a variety of environmental resources, such as network of other living beings (bees, birds) and perhaps other similar plants. Without a sufficient supply of both innate and environmental resources, the plant’s needs will not be met; at best it will not flourish, and at worst it will die.

Humans are part of this great network of needs and resources. We are more complex than plants in that, right from the start, our needs are not only physical but emotional and psychological, and we have correspondingly complex resources available to us. Both our needs and our resources also grow more complex as we develop. We are like the plants, however, in that, when our needs are not sufficiently met, we fail to thrive, and ultimately may die, emotionally, psychologically and/or physically. However, as a species we are extremely ingenious at getting our needs met- we have the resources of imagination, a problem-solving brain, tool-making hands, language, creativity, empathy, and emotions, all of which can enable us to identify, utilise or create what we need to survive and thrive. These are the human givens 1.

Because our needs and resources are so complex, it is unfortunately also possible for us to misunderstand needs, and/or to misuse our resources, in ways that work against us, or against other people or the environment.

The concept of emotional intelligence is a way of focussing on one of the most complex areas of human needs and resources. It refers to our ability to understand and manage our own emotions to positive ends, and to understand and respect the emotions of others2. We now know a great deal about how emotions “happen” in the brain, and about the relationship between the emotional, imaginative and cognitive processes in the brain. As a result, we can begin to understand our own emotions not simply through reflection and introspection, but through understanding processes. We can also understand how fundamental emotions are to our survival, and therefore why they are so powerful; we can see too why emotions often do not seem to be under our control, and how they can be triggered by memories and experiences which may not be present in our cognitive brain3.

It is easy to see how this understanding may be relevant to the work of social workers in their assessment and interventions with service users. The concept of needs and resources is not new in social work, and is systematised in assessment protocols and forms. Similarly, the fact that service users and carers are likely to have emotional needs and responses to their situations is well accepted.

However, the concept of generally applicable human givens, and the emphasis in the concept of emotional intelligence on self and management relationship, invites us to consider ourselves as dynamic partners with service users and carers in an emotional relationship. How much do and should our own needs and resources, and our emotions, impact on our social work role? Is it enough to adopt a stance of professional detachment – or even possible? Can we recognise and meet our own needs, while still prioritising the needs of the people with whom we work? Do we know how to maximise our own resources, and can we work creatively and positively to maximise the resources of others?

These are all issues which social workers need to address throughout their careers. You may already have noticed occasions, within college based modules, in group work, or in your practice learning opportunity, when you have felt uncomfortable, anxious, sad, angry, or even overwhelmed by a topic or situation. It is important to recognise that such feelings, far from being unacceptable or unprofessional, are important triggers for growth and learning, so long as they are recognised, and so long as you identify the resources you need to help you respond to them. At the same time, it is also essential to recognise and celebrate your positive resources and experiences, and see that these too are important learning opportunities.

There are several forms of progressing your learning and accessing support. These include your academic learning and reflection tools to explore the specific situations to further your understanding; the development and use of your networks such as tutorials, supervision, peer groups, and the use of services such as student welfare and counselling services to follow through personal development issues. You are likely to know what your needs are and your tutor or supervisor are available to discuss strategies and options that best suit you.

Angela Shaw April 2006

  1. Griffin Joe and Tyrell Ivan; The Human Givens: A New Approach to Emotional Health and Clear Thinking Human Givens Publishing, 2003 (also in paperback)
  2. Ciarrochi Joseph, Forgas Joseph P, Mayer John D. ;Emotional Intelligence in Everyday Life: A Scientific Inquiry Bloomsbury Publishing 1998
  3. Ledoux Joseph; The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life Touchstone 1998