A number of unsuspected challenges set new demands for the social services. These challenges include, for instance, employee turnover or burnouts. Imbalance in the working environment in social services has clear consequences for client relationships. These structural and organizational challenges are encountered by clients. People are not robots – neither social workers, nor clients. In a systematic world, all are connected to each other.
In social work, its context is an unwritten promise and aim that all clients are to be treated equally and met as unique individuals with different life situations. According to IFSW (ifsw.org) The International Federation of Social Workers, social workers strive for sustainable social development through the promotion of social work best practices and engagement in international cooperation. The key values and core elements are social justice, human rights and inclusiveness.
Already since the beginning of the 21st century, ”cultural competence” in social work has been questioned. According to this view, in social work that respects diversity, it is essential to learn from the clients’ experience as complex individual, cultural, and structural power relations are present in their lives. (1) In social work, the emphasis is on cooperation, listening and creating a common understanding with clients to tackle, for example, lack of cultural sensitivity.
Cultural competence can be seen as part of TS skills. According to Raatikainen and Rantala-Nenonen (2, s. 12) cultural sensitivity has been defined as an “ability to evaluate and develop one’s cultural awareness, or to have the knowledge, awareness, and acceptance of other cultures, and the willingness and capacity to understand people from different backgrounds, and to embrace diversity”.
Methodology and data collection
We asked how social worker’s transversal skills can best support and strengthen interaction in the client relationship and how transversal competence can contribute to structuring the interactive dimension of social workers. Data was collected by an open questionnaire in the project’s feedback session (11/2022), in pair discussion (Master’s Degree of Social Work). The survey was conducted in pairs (n=23), with a duration of approximately one hour. The participants’ backgrounds were the following: schools and vocational educational institutions, early childhood education, child protection, services for families with children, services for the disabled, substance abuse and mental health work (client work, administrative work), in Helsinki capital region.
The participants had prior knowledge of the topic. They had organized a seminar related to the topic as part of their studies (influence and communication skills) and in the summer school. There were 14 questions in total but only one of them is considered in this blog post: How transversal skills relate to social work that respects diversity? Participants were asked to discuss both empowering and detrimental examples (with clients, in structural work, as work approach), and how could TS skills and values be connected? (3).
Data analysis and results
The analysis of the data was carried out using a theory-driven approach to TS skills (deductive approach), and identifying the elements of diversity, combined with material-based content analysis*). TS skills include Critical and creative thinking (CCT), Interpersonal, interaction and emotional skills (IE), and learning to learn skills (LL).
According to our analysis, the responsibility lies with the social worker when encountering the client, and TS skills (IE) can help create a safe situation and space. The answers strongly emphasize the possibility of new and joint learning with the help of TS skills and consideration of the client’s life experience. TS skills are also seen from the perspective of the work community; as an opportunity, but also as a risk. One impression is that TS skills could also structure the work and operating environment more broadly, so that the client’s participation would be better possible.
The results are manifested on the client competence perspective, e.g. while developing services or the possibility of learning together: using the clients’ TS skills and considering their life experiences .
”Transversal skills can strengthen everyone’s individuality and support due to the fact that social work can produce services based on information received from clients.”
“All transversal skills are needed to support diversity; empathy, creativity and encountering skills are particularly emphasized. For example, how to connect native Finns and clients with different languages, especially when there is no common language. A lot of sensitivity, problem-solving ability and listening skills, and understanding of non-verbal communication are needed.”
Additionally, according to the results, the responsibility lies with the employee when meeting the clients: good transversal skills are a means for respectful encounters, which in turn is the starting point for creating a safe situation and space.
To our question about how descriptions of transversal competence can contribute to structuring the interactive dimension of social workers’ client competence and multifunctional work, as well as competences required in them, we conclude that all TS skills are needed, although the importance of language, and the importance of understanding diversity are highlighted.
The results indicate that, as future professionals, social services students have the opportunity to promote encounters that value diversity by utilizing TS skills more broadly than solely from the perspective of interpersonal, interaction and emotional skills.
Eija Raatikainen (PhD) Principal Lecturer, Licenced Social Worker, Project manager and researcher, RDI -coordinator/Innovation center MUAS/Participation and agency – project portfolion. Co-editor, Journal of Socialpedagogy (https://journal.fi/sosiaalipedagogiikka)
Katriina Rantala-Nenonen (MsSoc) is a senior lecturer and project manager in Metropolia UAS. She teaches social sciences for students in Bacherol and Master Degrees. Katriina works also as a specialist in HyMy Village Wellbeing and Health Services of MUAS based on an ecosystem approach. In the ITSHEC-project she was working as a developer.
Niina Pietilä (Licenciate of Social Sciences, licensed social worker) works as a teacher in Metropolia’s social services degrees and was working in the ITSHEC project.
- Rugkåsa, M. & Ylvisaker, S. 2019. From culturatisation to complexity – a critical view on the cultural competence discourse in social work. Nordic Social Work Research 11:3. 239-248.
- Raatikainen E & Rantala-Nenonen K. 2022. Pedagogical Framework. In: Carrió M, Rosa N, coordinators. Learning strategies to promote transversal skills on health and social care studies: a methodological guide. Barcelona: ITSHEC. p. 7-20.
- Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2000). Research Methods in Education (5th ed.). Routledge.
 The presentation ‘Transversal Skills as Support and Strengthening of Client Relations’ was given at the University of Helsinki, in Social Work Research Days 2023, on February 15–16. The theme of the days was Social Work and Diversity (Helsinki.fi)
The Metropolia team (Eija Raatikainen, Katriina Rantala-Nenonen and Niina Pietilä) gave the presentation which presented a part of a research group session, called ‘Preventable Change and Assessment of Change Processes in the Community’. (Itshec.fi)