Social Work and Relationships: the illusion of separateness

By Richard Devine (13.03.2020)

I was reading a brilliant blog by Ruth Scotten ( from ‘Mummy Tiger Blogs’ on ‘Building connections not barriers in social work’ ( In this blog Ruth wrote:

It’s the relationships we build, not the boxes we fill in, that sees past the yell from the vulnerable young mum who says “Just take my kids I’ve had enough” to recognise that what she is actually trying to say is; “I’m scared, lonely and overwhelmed, I need a hug and some time to heal my own wounds”.  She went on to say ‘To really make a difference, social workers need to see behind what is on the surface, to do this takes trust, openness, and understanding, all of which comes through the relationships we create’.

As I read this, I wondered about how we can position ourselves in social work in a way that creates the space for such meaningful dialogues to unfold. What is a required? Does it depend upon the development of sophisticated communication skills? Does such a conversation require the implementation of a practice framework, such as signs of safety or systemic practice? Or does such conversation emerge when a social worker adopts certain values? If so, what kind of values? Can those values be taught or learned?  

I will return to these questions at the end. For now, I will explore some ideas that may facilitate such dialogues, 3 in fact: 

Idea 1:  The axiomatic presupposition that the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is indiscernible.

The most eloquent conceptualisation of this I have come across is by spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle:   

If her past were your past, her pain your pain, her level of consciousness your level of consciousness, then you would think and act exactly as she does. With this realisation comes forgiveness, compassion, peace’ (2003: 92)

A principle that probably underpins the belief system of many professionals who work in the health and social care profession. BUT, what if that ‘her’ Tolle refers to is Victoria Climbie’s Aunt who emotionally and physically beat her niece to death? What if that ‘her’ is Peter Connelly’s mother who’s actions resulted in the death of her son following weeks of extreme neglect and abuse? Or Daniel Pelka’s mother and step father, who attempted to drown him, and starved him to death? Extending compassion to those that harm children, intentionally or unintentionally, can be challenging because it feels like we are making the behaviour acceptable or devaluing another persons perspective (Crittenden, 2016). In other words, it can feel like we are overlooking the harm done to children.  

Therefore, how do we make sense of the actions of those who cause harm to children in way that does not negate their harmful behaviour, yet facilities compassion, and more importantly, an understanding that facilitates a meaningful way forward? First of all, I think we have to admit the division between ‘us’  and ‘them’ is an illusion, or a construct and that had we been brought up at the same time, in the same family, culture and society, there is an inevitable probability we would ‘think and act exactly’ as they did.  

Idea 2: Can we ‘enter into the internal world of others feelings and personal meanings so completely’ that we lose ‘all desire to evaluate and judge it?’ (Rogers, C, 1961)

If we assume that the individual with their flaws and self destructive behaviours are manifesting what we would manifest if we had their experiences, then we can be curious about behaviour that seems unusual, troubling or self destructive. We can begin to ask non-judgemental and genuinely curious questions such as, ‘what happened in your life where drugs and alcohol become an attractive option or a self protective and necessary part of your life?’; How do drugs and alcohol help you cope?’; ‘What happened for you to feel compelled to control and coerce others to secure attention and love within intimate relationships?’; ‘What happened  for you to learn that displaying anger was better than showing sadness or fear or vulnerability?’. 

In the absence of implicit or explicit moral condemnation, parents can perhaps feel more confident in expressing their inner desires and motivation. Positing such questions increases the likelihood of facilitating their ability, ’to accept their own fears and bizarre thoughts and tragic feelings and discouragements, as well as their moments of courage and kindness and love and sensitivity’  (Rogers, 1961: 19). 

Idea 3: Social work is as much about a way of BEING as it is about DOING.

Winnicott, arguably in contrast to his psychoanalytical peers, considered the role of the psychotherapist as being a container, or a vessel through which the patient was able to utilise the relationship with him to access insight or untapped inner wisdom. In other words, he was less concerned with what he was DOING with the patient and focussed on a way of BEING. In his seminal book, Playing with Reality, Winnicott wrote: 

‘Psychotherapy is not making clever and apt interpretations; by and large it is a long term giving back what the patient brings. It is a complex derivative of the face that reflects what is there to be seen. I like to think of my work this way, and to think that if I do it well enough the patient will find his or her own self, and will be able to exist and to feel real. Feeling real is more than existing: it is finding a way to exist as oneself’ (1982: 158).    

To find oneself in the mind of the other is to experience empathy; this creates the psychological space that enables the emergence of reflective thought and increased understanding about action that could be taken to ameliorate personal suffering. A parent doesn’t need us to tell them what is wrong and how it needs to be fixed; it is often self evident, albeit heavily clouded by shame and denial. If we can engage on a dialogical enterprise that reduces, or removes the feelings of shame and self protective necessity for denial, then solutions and pathways forward may present themselves for the person concerned.  


It seems that these ideas are not contingent upon a set of communication skills or a particular practice framework. This means they can be integrated into our practice, whether we are a social work student, or a an experienced practitioner; whether we work in a local authority that has adopted signs of safety or a local authority that has adopted systemic practice. They are closely aligned to values although seem too pragmatic. Perhaps then, they constitute principles; principles that transcend the limitations placed upon us by our training, experiences or the system from which we practice. 

On a final note, a unifying thread that seams through all three principles is humility. As pointed out by Rogers (1961: 53), 

‘a minimal amount of empathic understanding - a bumbling and faulty attempt to catch the confused complexity of the clients meaning - is helpful’.  

By Richard Devine (13.03.2020)

Published by Richard Devine's Social Work Practice Blog

My name is Richard Devine. I am a Social Worker in Bath and North East Somerset Council. After I qualified in 2010 I worked in long term Child Protection Teams. Since 2017 I have been undertaking community based parenting assessments. I obtained a Masters in Attachment Studies 2018.

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