We recently interviewed Cindy Palmer, an experienced social worker who also teaches the Community Services Worker (CSW) program at Herzing College Toronto.
One of the things we talked about were key skills for CSWs. We asked Cindy what it takes to make a positive impact in this role—and how someone can know they'd be a good fit for the career.
Her answer was a bit surprising. Cindy said “being able to truly listen” is by far the most important characteristic for CSWs.
What exactly did she mean by that? What makes someone a really good listener, and why does it matter so much in social work?
It might sound obvious, but knowing how to listen is more complex than you might think. It leads back to something called Emotional Intelligence—EQ.
Listening is a crucial piece of the puzzle, but there are other elements of EQ that are essential for anyone who does social work...including of course, community services workers. You won’t get anywhere in this career without high EQ.
What exactly is emotional intelligence, and how do you know if you have it? Here’s a breakdown of what it’s all about—and how it relates to becoming a community services worker.
Emotional Intelligence: What exactly is it?
“Emotional intelligence” is knowing how to manage your own emotions—and being able to identify and effectively respond to other people’s emotions as well.
“An emotionally intelligent individual is highly conscious of his or her own emotional states, even negativity—frustration, sadness, or something more subtle—and able to identify and manage them. These people are also especially tuned in to the emotions others experience.” (Psychology Today)
People with high EQ are especially good at communicating with others. They can build rapport and trust with strangers quite quickly. They can relate to how others are feeling, and respond with sensitivity.
This skill is clearly essential for community services workers, as they support society’s most marginalized and vulnerable communities—people with mental health and addiction issues, at-risk women, newcomers to Canada, the LGBTQ community, the homeless, and the impoverished.
CSWs advocate for, and give voice to, people who need special support. The ability to build trust and manage emotions is a fundamental requirement for the job.
Instructor Cindy Palmer (centre, red dress) with Community Services Worker students at the Herzing Toronto campus
Emotional Intelligence and Empathy
When she explained the most important skills for CSWs, Cindy Palmer also highlighted the importance of empathy. Empathy is a central component of emotional intelligence. Empathetic people can put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
They can relate to and feel what another person is going through.They can see the world through that person’s eyes, and experience compassion for their hardships.
“Some students think they need to have all the right answers, and know exactly what to say in every situation. During training, they come to understand that this expectation isn't realistic. Instead, students learn that the most important thing they can bring to each interaction is empathy and unconditional positive regard. That is at the heart of this field.”
Without empathy there can be no emotional intelligence. Without empathy, a CSW would be completely unable to do her/his job effectively. How can you help and guide someone if you can’t relate to their experience, or show them that you respect how they’re feeling?
Active Listening and a Non-judgmental Attitude
Active listening is a key skill used in counselling, training, and resolving conflicts. It’s a core competency taught in Community Services Worker programs, and a main feature of EQ.
When CSW students learn how to interview and counsel people struggling with challenges, they learn the pillars of active listening, which include:
- Being non-judgmental
- Giving verbal and nonverbal feedback to show signs of listening (smiling, eye contact, leaning in, mirroring)
- Asking questions to clarify key points
- Summarizing to confirm understanding
Instead of just passively “hearing” what someone is telling you, active listening means you’re truly engaged in the moment. You are responding, showing empathy, and never judging. This is what Cindy means by bringing “unconditional positive regard” to every interaction.
Are you the person friends or family often confide in? Do you find yourself often asked to give advice, or simply listen, when a friend is going through a tough time?
If yes, you are a natural “active listener” people feel they can trust. You instill a sense of trust in others, which allows them to open up to you, without fearing judgment or criticism. You possess a key attribute of high EQ.
Self-awareness and managing your emotions
Having strong social skills and knowing how to bond with others is important for CSWs...but you need one other crucial ability to pull those talents together, and truly help others in need. You must have a high level of self-awareness and the ability to regulate your emotions.
Community services workers assist people from all backgrounds and walks of life. They sometimes deal with people who have suffered trauma and great loss. Being aware of your own cultural biases, and knowing how to manage your emotions, is key to providing others with a solid base of support.
We all have biases. We all hold certain perceptions (and misconceptions) about other groups in society. CSWs must look closely at their own assumptions and belief-systems. They must ensure those ideas don’t negatively influence how they support people in need.
This goes hand-in-hand with regulating emotions. Cindy says CSWs can’t get swept away in what their clients are going through—or they won’t last long in this field.
“The ability to problem-solve with clients, and not take your work home with you, will help you have a long and successful career.”
Are you suited to become a Community Support Worker?
People with high EQ are uniquely suited to the demands of social work.They possess the combination of communication and social skills, empathy, and self-awareness needed to help others through difficult challenges.
Do the traits on this list sound familiar to you? Think you could make a positive difference as a CSW?
We welcome you to explore the Community Services Worker program at Herzing College. This is a 12-month diploma program, which includes an 8-week internship at a local community organization.
Training is available on campus and online. Choose the format that works best for you.
Fill out the Request Information form on this page to get program details by email. Or, click below to explore the CSW program for yourself. See a detailed course list, career information, and chat live with an Admissions Advisor. We’re here to help!