Sarah McCulloch reminds us that a relationship-based approach is collaborative, not confrontational, congruent, respectful and not indulgent or neglectful and essentially it is kind.

By Sarah McCulloch, Placement Supervisor/ Personal Tutor in Social Work at the University of Strathclyde and also working as an Independent Practice Teacher

contact e-mail:


I was pleased to be ask to write this article. Why? Because I think as we get older and wiser in Social Work and suffer from a few bouts of compassion fatigue, it is easy to forget what we are all about as Social Workers. We are about the ‘We’ and the ‘partnership’ and the ‘solving things together’ and ‘shared goals’ approach. It is about people feeling important, feeling understood/listened to and connected. As the old clichés go ‘no person is an island’ as ‘…together we will thrive but alone we will most certainly perish!

The most important thing in the work we do is the relationships that we form and nurture, whether it is between students, people we are supporting or internal and external colleagues. The stronger your network and bonds, the better armed you are for what lies ahead. It is about affording people time and meaningful presence. Without the space and time to do this, we lose the productiveness and meaningfulness of the work. I have said often in my student lectures that good relationship-based practice and shared goals leads to successful outcomes; whether it be for individuals, families or students, or whether it be with our children or our significant others. Good relationship-based practice requires excellent communication, emotional attunement, a high level of emotional intelligence and impeccable use of self. Over the years, I have seen a continuum in how we practice between individual workers. On one side of the slide is the emotionally detached, highly boundaried ‘like a fortress’ worker, and on the other, is the emotionally over-involved worker who gets ‘blown about by the wind’. We need to sit somewhere in the middle.

It sounds simple really but when I started out in Social work twenty years ago, there seemed to be a real push for you to be this robotic superhuman who was made out of fireproof Teflon. Whether it be the style of management at the time but if you presented as an empathetic, soft, feeling type of worker, it was considered weak. I remember one manager sending me into a situation where there were concerns regarding domestic violence. When I returned to the office and advised him that I had to flee for my own safety, he said: “you should have stood your ground Sarah! made yourself big and your voice firm and loud”. I am, by definition, tiny and soft spoken, and there was no way, no how!, that that would have made any difference to the giant, angry, violent man who was hurtling down the hall towards me. This was perhaps one of the worst pieces of advice I was ever given.

I always say to students, people won’t necessarily remember what you do but they will remember how you are with them, how you treat them, and how you make them feel. Howe (2009) talks about the importance of connecting ‘mind to mind’ and the fact that we value being understood. It is about ‘mind meeting mind’ and ‘eye meeting eye’ with the work happening in the space in between. Howe highlights that it is a human want to understand and be understood by others. He describes relationships as:

“…a difficult, messy business. But so long as we continue to struggle to connect, communicate and understand, there is always the prospect of change, the hope of finding meaning”. (Howe, 2009, p.159)

It is not always possible to get past people’s well-fortified defence mechanisms or self-made walls. Complex mental health difficulties, such as personality disorder, can make the path to good relationship-based practice a very treacherous one indeed, if near impossible (transference, projection, counter-transference, splitting and fiddly drama triangles all providing pesky flies in the ointment!) but we must at least endeavour!

It is about practicing with heart and in a thoroughly anti-oppressive way. It is an ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ relationship. Drawing on the principles of Carl Roger’s person-centred practice, working relationships are founded on “empathy, warmth and genuineness” (Rogers: 1961). It is a power WITH, not a power over approach and it has all these qualities: honesty, reliability, CONGRUENCE (very important!), concern, good listening skills, appropriate use of humour (also important), respect, attention to detail, patience, sensitivity and all these things that make for good relationships. These and others, including emotional containment, were captured in 1957 by Felix Biestek’s influential text “The Casework Relationship”. It is not rocket science. We know this! A procedural, managerial, ‘power over’ relationship makes it impossible to practice in a relationship-based way and therefore compromises successful outcomes.

Octavia Hill became known as the ‘grandmother of Social Work’ and she believed that getting to know the people she worked with and their character improved her practice. In her 1869, (1869!) address to the Social Science Association, Hill said that you need knowledge of ‘people, their character, their inner life and personal experience’. She said she wanted to:

“move touch and teach them…Our ideal must be to promote the happy natural intercourse of neighbours. Only when face meets face, heart meets heart; only in the settled link with those who are old friends…is [there] more opportunity to grow and to shine” (quoted in Woodruffe:1962, p52)

It is about “walking a mile in their shoes” and helping people to shine. This has always stuck with me. It communicates interest, value, a sense of quality and respect. Good relationship-based practice can prevail through very difficult times. Prior to being qualified I volunteered with a charity that supported people who were rough sleeping. I remember two nights where I walked about the streets with two separate individuals who were threatening to complete suicide. A year later, the boyfriend of one of the people came up to me and thanked me. He shook me by the hand and thanked me for being there for his girlfriend (who had spent the night very cross with me indeed as I wouldn’t be shaken off!). He thanked me and told me that this year they have a flat together and that they had actually put up a Christmas tree for the first time!

I also remember a very difficult child protection investigation and case where it was only through the relationship that I had formed with the parent that the correct account of what had happened was revealed. The truth was laid bare and the child could be protected. This has often happened. On another occasion, good relationship-based practice meant I could support a mother to testify against the children’s father who was accused of abusing one of his children. People need to feel understood and know you are by their side, walking alongside them. Ivory towers and managerial loudspeakers do not bring about these necessary outcomes, no matter how difficult and painful the outcomes may be.

I remember other snapshots of some of the work I have done with people, including once particular family. The lady in the family had been through a horrific childhood however was doing her best to bring up her children whilst living in poverty and with many abusive family members still hovering around the edges of her life. I had supported her to attend a number of meetings regarding her child’s disability benefit application. On one particular occasion I could not attend. We had spent time together building up her confidence and she advised me that she was feeling confident to go alone. I remember coming out of a Child Protection Meeting and I saw her at the front door of the office. She had tears in her eyes. She simply said “I’ve won. Sarah, I’ve won”. She had, because she had done it herself. She even took the bus back from the tribunal just to tell me, rather than going straight home. “I’ve won” kind of sums it up for me. People remember how you were with them, how you ARE and not what you do. Amidst all the bad relationships, modelling a good relationship can be the first step to people relearning what to expect and how they deserve to be treated. It helps them ‘set up their stall’ differently and teaches other people to treat them the right way, the way they indeed deserve.

A relationship-based approach is therefore collaborative, not confrontational, congruent, respectful and not indulgent or neglectful and essentially it is kind.

I say to students, Social work chooses you, you don’t choose it. You need to look for the small changes, the small rewards. You are never going to change the world in a day but you will save lives, you will talk people down from a balcony, you will perhaps take broken glass from a young person’s hands to stop them self-harming in their moment of distress, and you will perhaps turn a corner and see a young mother, who was once a young child who had been abused and hospitalised many times and who was let down by the people who was supposed to care for her, telling you that she had won and then you realise that you have too.

It is worth remembering that:

“Every contact we have has the power to lift, energise and act as a turning point for people”

It is in these times that we win. Someone did this for me in 2018 and as workers we have the opportunity to do this for the people that we support every day. This is the privilege of our profession and we know this in our hearts which is why we continue to endeavour.

Thanks for reading.


Biestek, F. (1957): The Casework Relationship. S J Chicago: Loyola University Press.
Howe, D. (2009): A Brief Introduction to Social Work Theory. Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan.
Rogers, C.R. (1961): On Becoming a Person. Boston, Hougton Mifflin
Woodruffe, K. (1962): From Family to Social Work in England and the United States. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

About the author:

Sarah McCulloch has been a qualified social worker for 20 years. She was nominated for Practice Teacher of the Year at the 12th Annual SASW Awards in 2019.

Leave a Reply