Interview Techniques for Social Workers

The way a social worker interviews her clients can have a profound impact on rapport.
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Effective communication is one of the most important components of successful social work. Social workers interview their clients during the initial phases of treatment to gain information, determine the presenting problems and formulate treatment plans. They rely on specific interviewing techniques to establish trust and build positive relationships with their clients.

1 Asking Direct Questions

Social workers use two key types of questioning techniques -- open-ended questioning and closed-ended questioning -- to elicit information from their clients. Open-ended questions cannot be answered with a simple "yes" or "no"; for example, a social worker trying to determine whether a client is suffering from depression might ask, "Can you describe your symptoms?" The social worker might then restate the client's answers to obtain further clarity; he might say, "I hear you saying that you've felt depressed every day for the past two weeks. Is that right?" Closed-ended questions, on the other hand, can be answered with "yes" or "no" or with a specific type of information, as when the social worker asks the client for her address, date of birth or marital status.

2 Reading Client Questionnaires

Client questionnaires, also known as personal assessment forms, are written forms of communication that help clients convey personal information, such as address or age, as well as their own thoughts and feelings about their problems. Social workers might ask clients to fill out assessment forms during their initial interviews to help determine how clients feel about specific concerns, such as stress or self-care, or to gain background information on topics such as family structure or history of previous treatment. Questions might be presented as rating scales; clients might be asked to circle a number between one and 10 to determine how depressed they feel at the moment. Assessment forms might also include questions about a client's previous experiences with psychiatric treatment or psychotherapy.

3 Attending to Nonverbal Cues

Communication occurs on multiple levels; it's not just about what a client says but also the way she says it. Paying attention to nonverbal cues is a crucial part of effective interviewing, because it can shed more light on a client's mental state and feelings about specific topics. Nonverbal communication includes body language, such as posture or eye contact; facial expressions; tone of voice; use of silence; and physical distance from the interviewer. For example, a client who sits too close to the interview might have problems maintaining interpersonal boundaries. A social worker might also make a mental note of when a client responds to certain questions with a break in eye contact or by assuming a defensive posture.

4 Listening and Remaining Silent

Silence can truly speak a thousand words in social work practice. Often, remaining silent and allowing the client to speak freely can tell a social worker more than asking a battery of questions. But a social worker also needs to be comfortable with silence so he can properly attend to his clients. The interview technique of attending means providing clients with undivided attention, staying silent at appropriate moments and observing and listening with the entire body -- ears, eyes, head and heart.

Ashley Miller is a licensed social worker, psychotherapist, certified Reiki practitioner, yoga enthusiast and aromatherapist. She has also worked as an employee assistance program counselor and a substance-abuse professional. Miller holds a Master of Social Work and has extensive training in mental health diagnosis, as well as child and adolescent psychotherapy. She also has a bachelor's degree in music.