I’ve kind of been on a Malcolm Gladwell kick the past couple of weeks. I read Blink and Outliers and Tipping Point in three successive days, so I’ve had some of his ideas stirring around in my head for awhile now. And, of course, what that means for all of you is that what’s stirring around in my head has to have somewhere to go; hence, I’ve got a few posts about Gladwell-inspired ideas.
This is the first of these, about the snap judgments, the instinctive knowledge, that Gladwell exalts in Blink. I’ve got one more variation on this theme for tomorrow, but, here, I’m thinking about those little puzzles that social workers, especially those with finely-tuned clinical skills, are so good at sorting out: the twitch in someone’s face that suggests discomfort, the flat affect that betrays happy words, the shifting eyes that tell a trained clinician to ask more questions.
We’re fairly comfortable with ambiguity, and we understand that ambivalence is an emotion as real as any other. We’re used to having to make quick decisions, with relatively little available information and, many times, no perfect option (“should this child be removed from her home?” “does this client need to be hospitalized?”). We’ve learned, then, to rely on what we can get from quick glimpses into the lives of others; in the language of Gladwell, this is “thin-slicing” at its finest.
And while those are obviously skills that are essential in the clinical realm (and skills that, quite honestly, can sometimes be problematic; Gladwell devotes many pages to dissecting prejudices and the ways in which first impressions can negatively and unduly influence our thinking about others, or even entire groups of ‘others’), they’re skills that are critically important but often underrated in the advocacy world, too.
Which brings me to today’s installment in one of my favorite all-time themes: more reasons why social workers are particularly well-suited to advocacy success. Here’s my list of 5 ways in which this thin-slicing social workers develop in the field can serve us well in advocacy.
1. Being able to “read into” a policymaker’s statements–I’ve often seen advocates who feel betrayed by what they thought they heard a policymaker say, when the reality is that they weren’t listening with an eye to all of those subtle cues.
2. Making quick decisions in negotiations–This requires not just being able to rapidly hone in on what’s really essential, but also very high emotional intelligence, to know what others are willing to give in a negotiation, and where the deal-breaker point is.
3. Noticing what’s not happening–Social workers are adept, as are experts in many fields, at noticing surprises, quirks that interrupt expected patterns and, as such, deserve our attention. In advocacy, this means seeing unique opportunities for coalitions and the ‘spaces’ that open up, often only momentarily, for movement on a given issue.
4. Forging through uncertainty–There are no foregone conclusions in advocacy work, and we have to make choices without being able to skip ahead to know how those choices will turn out. Social work advocates who are guided by an internal value system, rather than subject exclusively to the whims of external opinion, are better able to keep their faith in times of seeming bleakness.
5. Sizing up potential partners–Advocates have to know who they can trust, and also what roles different potential allies (policymakers, agency regulators, coalition partners, media outlets) can play in a given campaign, and that takes being able to assess people, relatively quickly (because you need to know how to relate to them in the meantime), and also being aware enough of the biases that shape our first impressions to know when they are not to be trusted, either. Advocates who can’t manuever these fraught situations well end up either stumbling over themselves (burning bridges as they go) or unnecessarily locked in to a narrow range of allies, stunting the progress of their struggle.
So what are your first impressions of this idea–that social workers can import into our advocacy work the “people-reading” skills that make us good social workers in the first place? How would you add to this list?