What’s in a Word(s)? Practice Wisdom


By Al Murdach, LCSW (retired)

This column explores some of the meanings behind words that today can have a significant impact upon the social work profession. Our words today are “practice wisdom”.

For the past 20 or so years, there has been a running debate in the profession over the respective merits of professional intervention based upon empirical evidence versus intervention based primarily upon past experience, intuition, and situational insight. Although both approaches are constantly used together in social work practice, this debate shows no signs of going away. At present, the idea of intervention based up empirical evidence seems to be winning the day, especially among those who fund and support social work services.

However, throughout its history, social work has relied, as do many professions, on maxims that help to guide its practitioners in their everyday encounters with clients and patients. These maxims are not based upon research findings or statistics but are derived from other sources, most particularly from workers and instructors in the field who have tried to boil down practical tips and advice based on years of past experience. These are common sense “sayings” which for years have proved extremely helpful in guiding everyday decision-making in practice situations. Here are six examples of some social work maxims that summarize especially important points to remember in daily practice situations and thus constitute a special kind of practice wisdom.

 Start Where the Client Is This dictum has been attributed to social work pioneers as varied as Mary Richmond, Bertha Reynolds, Zilpha D. Smith and Jessie Taft. Although its origins are uncertain it remains a key command guiding social workers in all fields because it recognizes that the client’s perspective must always be given top priority in any and all social work interventions.

Don’t Speak for the Client Since the client’s perspective is primary, clients must be given the opportunity to speak for themselves without interference by the worker or any attempts by the worker to “guide” or clarify the client’s discussion, even though such attempts might be well-intentioned and respectful.

Don’t Do for Clients What Clients Can Do for Themselves Social workers are programmed to “help” and “serve” others. This maxim stresses the necessity of “standing back” to allow clients to make the first move to address their particular problems and difficulties. In some cases, clients may need to be “given the tools” to take the initiative to solve their problems, but the tools must always remain in their hands.

Respect and Encourage the Client’s Self-Determination This maxim has long been considered to be the bedrock of social work practice, and the field has for years held this principle to be sacrosanct despite its vagueness and an ongoing confusion as to how it should be implemented (e.g., Should the client’s self-determination be limited or channeled? How? Who decides? Etc.).

Don’t Make Commitments to the Client That You Can’t Keep Workers may sometimes get carried away in their desire to assist the client and promise to make changes the situation won’t actually allow or that the client really isn’t ready for. This tendency among helpers was recognized in the earliest days of social work practice and this maxim has been passed around in various forms since then to keep workers aware of their limitations.

If the Worker Joins with the Client, the Helper’s Chair is Empty This maxim is a cautious reflection on the social work ideal of proper professional distance in relationships with clients. This ideal has had a tortured history in the profession since workers sometimes strive to be “one” with the client only to realize that becoming the client’s advocate carries the risk of losing their professional identity.

Those wishing a more systematic analysis of practice wisdom should consult the lead article on the subject, “Practice Wisdom” by Klein and Bloom, in the November 1995 issue of Social Work.

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