Essential Social Worker Skills and Traits

Social worker reading paperwork to young woman

Everyone encounters life transitions and challenges. These can range from delightful life changes, such as adopting a child, to devastating challenges, such as being diagnosed with a terminal illness. Others must cope with everyday dilemmas, such as children who are dealing with bullies in schools or parents who are struggling to acquire parenting skills.

These diverse challenges and transitions all have one thing in common: the professional guidance of a social worker can help. Social workers specialize in helping people overcome many types of life challenges and transitions and, as you might imagine, these professionals require a broad spectrum of social worker skills and traits. This career guide explores the profession and the many skills needed to be a social worker.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

Social Workers are present in the field on three levels: Macro (community organizing, politics, advocacy), mezzo (groups and small communities), and micro (Individuals and families). Social workers may work within a variety of settings, including schools, mental health treatment facilities, community outreach organizations and government agencies. Their job is to empower people to manage and overcome various life problems. A licensed clinical social worker is also authorized to diagnose and treat behavioral and mental disorders.

A social worker meeting a new client will have an initial discussion to build rapport and learn about the client’s challenges and needs. The professional will then work to address those issues, often by providing counseling and connecting the client to needed community resources. Social workers can also be called upon for crisis intervention in emergency situations, including instances of child abuse and mental health emergencies.

Social workers are also on the forefront of political campaigns, social justice and advocacy. Social workers build community engagements and help increase community awareness and large scale change.

The Qualities and Skills Needed to Be a Social Worker

The job of a social worker is highly rewarding and meaningful but it can also be demanding and difficult because social workers help individuals and families who are going through challenging transitions or life circumstances. They may encounter clients who have suffered from:

  • Hate crimes or speech
  • Violent crimes
  • Major illnesses
  • Neglect
  • Abuse
  • Addictions/Substance Abuse
  • Challenging situations

Because of the difficult nature of social work, these professionals must actively cultivate several skills and qualities.


Empathy is at the top of the list of social worker skills for these professionals because it underpins a social worker’s entire job. To create meaningful and positive change in a person’s life, a social worker must be able to truly understand what that person is feeling and experiencing. An empathetic person can put themselves in another person’s shoes and see things from their perspective.

A social worker with a keen sense of empathy can more effectively build a rapport with their clients. They are also better able to understand the client’s needs and work to fulfill them.


Compassion and empathy are often confused for each other, yet there are subtle differences between these traits. Whereas empathy involves seeing something from another person’s point of view and understanding their feelings, compassion takes it a step further. When a compassionate person understands what someone else is struggling with, they feel motivated to relieve that person’s suffering.

Communication Skills

Communication is another of the crucial skills needed to be a social worker. Social workers must be active listeners who focus intensely on what their clients are saying, ask questions for clarification and use paraphrasing and summarizing to enhance their understanding. Social workers must also know how to read and interpret nonverbal language, such as body language.

Along with receptive language skills, social workers must be effective at clearly communicating their ideas verbally. Because these professionals are responsible for writing reports and case notes, written language skills are critical as well.

Problem-Solving Abilities

A social worker’s clients may face complex challenges. It’s often necessary to think outside the box and be able to think on your feet to develop possible solutions. Social workers and clients often brainstorm solutions collaboratively.

Cultural Awareness and Respect

Social workers work with people of all backgrounds and from all walks of life. Regardless of their personal beliefs, values and cultural norms, they must always display acceptance and respect for their clients’ cultural backgrounds and identities. These identities include but are not limited to:

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Disability
  • Age


Every client progresses at their own pace and the social worker must honor each client’s individual needs. This is particularly true of complex cases.

Professional Ethics

All social workers must abide by a strict sense of professional ethics. These professionals must have an unwavering commitment to integrity, respect for the dignity and worth of the person and dedication to furthering social justice.

Social Advocacy

Historically, social workers have devoted themselves to people who have been underserved, oppressed and marginalized. They are true social advocates who work to empower their clients by furthering social justice. Social workers’ clients often cannot advocate for themselves, and so social workers serve as their voice.


Social workers work with individuals in incredibly difficult situations. It can be emotionally draining to work with children who have suffered abuse, for example, or minority groups who have been victimized by hate speech. All social workers must be committed to practicing self-care to support their emotional wellness, to avoid professional burnout and to model a healthy well-being for their clients.

Developing Social Worker Skills by Earning Your Social Work Degree

Although traits such as compassion, empathy and patience can be cultivated through life experiences, a social work degree will teach you all of the practical social worker skills you’ll need to pursue your dream career. People come to this field from a variety of academic backgrounds, although the most common degree choice is a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree. While the curriculum for this degree will vary from one school to the next, you can generally expect to study topics to help you develop the skills needed to be a social worker, such as: 

  • Theories and practices of social work, including case management skills and effective communication
  • Professional ethical behavior as a social worker, including making decisions amid ethical dilemmas
  • Diversity, advocacy and social justice
  • Trauma-informed care, including screening, assessing and treating individuals who suffer from traumatic stress

With a non-licensure bachelor’s degree, graduates will be qualified to pursue entry-level roles in the social work field. These include mental health assistant and caseworker positions.

If you would like to work as a clinical social worker, you’ll need to earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. If you obtain a BSW from a Council on Social Work-accredited school it's possible to earn your MSW in one year. If you come to social work from another discipline, this typically takes two years of study, including an internship or supervised practicum that involves fieldwork. After graduating with your MSW, you can obtain state licensure as a social worker, which generally requires at least two years of supervised clinical experience.

If you would like to make it your life’s work to help and serve others in your community, consider taking a step toward your future by enrolling in Grand Canyon University. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Social Work degree (non-licensure) for those who are interested in entry-level social work jobs or moving on to studying social work at the graduate level. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn more about becoming a student in our Christian learning community.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.