How to build good relations between professionals and their clients?


For effective intercultural communication between the social worker and the migrant, it is essential that a social worker is able to take the action in accordance with the acquired knowledge of the specifics of various national cultures. The American National Association of Social Workers defines cultural competences as a set of behaviors, approaches and policies coming together in a single system or activity, enabling professionals to work effectively in intercultural situations.” Cultural competencies are a lifelong process for social workers who are still confronted with different clients and new situations. “(NASW, 2001, p. 13)

Intercultural competence is a set of cognitive, affective and behavioral competence. We cannot separate these elements from each other, and if we want to develop intercultural competencies, we can only do this by developing these three competencies. Cognitive competence includes knowledge, experience and information about different culture and about our culture. Cognitive competencies include the process of learning about foreign cultures and the understanding differences between a domestic and a foreign culture. Affective competencies include the psychological reaction of the person dealing with a member of another culture. It is not enough to have the knowledge about the given culture but it is inevitable to be culturally sensitive and empathetic. Intercultural sensitivity means the perception of the foreign culture and is based on personal features- e.g. the level of openness and orientation towards other people. While dealing with a foreign culture, empathy will help us to understand the foreign mentality and its specifics, relationships rules and ways of expression of emotions in a particular culture. It is essential to recognize the common interpersonal proximity and distance typical of a particular culture. Last competence is behavioral, involving a wide range of skills and abilities, such as communication skills, conflict resolution skills, the ability to work in an intercultural team and problem-solving skills in the intercultural situation. This competence also involves an ability to interpret non-verbal signals, to understand a specific sense of humor and irony and the correct interpretation of conflict situations (Buryjanek, Kamenická, 2002).


The culturally competent practice of social work should, according to Lyons (2006), range on the following four levels:

  1. Intercultural Counseling Work – assistance and interpreting services in public institutions. A social worker acts as an expert on a particular issue, e.g. the legislation of the foreigner’s residence, the healthcare system, the system of education, etc. and offers clients basic counselling in the field, accompany them to institutions and act as interpreters, negotiators, and assistants. The approach of a social worker is neutral. He tries to make the mutual communication between the client and the institution easier. This approach is mainly developed by non-governmental organizations on the level of assistance services for migrants.
  2. Radical Intercultural Work defends the rights of disadvantaged migrants aiming to mitigate structural discrimination and oppression. A social worker is not in a neutral position but he fights for the rights of disadvantaged or socially excluded migrants. Radical intercultural work focuses not only on helping an individual client but also on changing the system. It fights against structural discrimination and the unfair distribution of the power, which discriminates particular groups of people. The ideological inspiration of radical social approaches is inspired by the work of Paolo Freire and his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It is an activist form of intercultural work that can be performed within independent NGOs or voluntary initiatives and platforms. This approach is constantly reflected in the fact that migrants often play the role of whipping boys not only in times of the crisis and it is inevitable to be vigilant and active against any form of discrimination towards them.
  3. Participatory and community intercultural work means the activation of migrants in civic participation, support of mutual co-operation of migrants and the major society on the local level. Is focused on strengthening the possibilities and interest of migrants in public affairs, working with the community of people/communities living together share the same space (home, quarter, village) and are represented by people of migrant origin. This approach is based on the belief that the involvement of migrants into civil society at the place where they are living, can be a source of support and a powerful tool for the positive changes with the aim to promote harmonious coexistence. Social workers can be members of the community, as it is important to have people’s trust and be able to connect people of different interests and attitudes.
  4. Intercultural Mediation encompasses activities to prevent conflicts among socially diverse actors and in case of the occurrence of the conflict, this level of intercultural work is aimed at its resolution.

For further development of intercultural social work, it is inevitable to ensure that these topics will be covered in the curriculum of social work departments, to consider the possible further specialization into intercultural social work, to offer follow-up training and advanced training for social workers (e.g. in courses for lifelong learning), to focus on community intercultural work and intercultural mediation, and to develop methods for the activation of migrants in the civil society. It is necessary not to focus solely on assistance and interpreting services but also build relationship between migrants and major society. On the other hand, for the effective social work with migrants, it is essential not to underestimate the importance of social work methods itself on behalf of intercultural work, perceive also the particular situation and personality of the client, in addition to cultural features. It is inevitable to see the client as the equal partner and abandon ethnocentrism and control in the relation social worker-client.

Katarína Özger