My first experience with providing clinical supervision was about a year and a half ago, supervising an advanced-standing graduate student during her internship. The student's MSW program provided 6 sessions of training for new clinical supervisors (free CEUs!). One theme we kept returning to was the complaint from the student that their placement wasn't "clinical enough." I empathized with this; I recall expressing the exact same complaint as a grad student. I hated my first placement deeply, partly because I felt like it wasn't "clinical." (There were other reasons of course but that's a drama for another day). I was inclined then, at this training, to side with the students on this point. Some placements just don't seem to be given to enhancing clinical skills. But my trainors reminded me of a simple and true fact about being a social worker: every conversation you have with a client is a clinical conversation. Every. Single. One.
That was by no means the first time I ever heard someone make that point. But prior to that training, I didn't really believe it. When I was doing case management, for instance, it was easy to forget the clinical piece because so much of my job was about providing concrete resources to people in crisis. I often got caught up in the (sometimes very complicated) surface issues: pending evictions, drug or alcohol relapses, medication compliance. I sometimes forgot that I could utilize my clinical skills during these conversations because I was focused on what I could do right that minute.
I burned out of that job pretty quickly because I felt like all I did was put Band-Aids on broken legs. Now, several more years into my career, with different experiences and more education, I think about that job differently. Knowing what I know now, I think I could have been better at it. This feels especially true as I learn new skills, like motivational interviewing. When I was case managing, stuck in the weeds of constant crisis, I often forgot to use my clinical skills to tease out the underlying issues. Why, for instance, would someone relapse after a year of successful sobriety? Why did this one client, who seemed to have a reasonable income, constantly end up on the brink of eviction? Maybe I asked the client that, but not in a skillful way that elicited a thoughtful conversation. I focused on the resources I could provide and forgot, sometimes, the clinical skills I learned as a student.
It's easy to do that, when we are pressed for time and have limited tangible help we can offer our clients. But we have tools at our disposal that are unique to this profession: we know how to look deeper at what is said and not said in a client meeting. As soon as we start a conversation with a client, we are doing clinical work: assessing body language, physical presentation, affect, what they're saying and what they may actually mean. Don't be fooled by the weeds you sometimes get into: every conversation is clinical because this work is complicated. And your skills are growing every time you interact with someone.
Happy Social Work Month! Do good work and be proud of it.