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Compassionate Competence: A New Model for Social Work Practice

by Marian L. Swindell, Ph.D.
from The New Social Worker - The Social Work Careers Magazine
original source:

As a social work practitioner and educator, I have always felt something lacking in my practice philosophy. I encourage my undergraduate students to develop a practice “philosophy” or “mantra” that they will try to live up to every single day. Upon graduation from my MSW program, I embraced my practice “mantra” or philosophy as stemming from the Wesleyan Doctrines of Goodness. As I was raised within the church setting, I became very familiar with this doctrine, which encourages people to “do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can"

As I graduated with MSW in hand, I was prepared to go out and “do good.” I was blessed with an amazing graduate program that encouraged MSWs to go out into the world and make a huge, positive difference. Thinking back upon that educational program, I realize that they were, in fact, giving me permission to go out, be brave and courageous, and really seriously change the 

During my education, one fundamental skill I was taught and worked to develop was the skill of cultural competence. A great definition of cultural competence is:

the process by which individuals and systems respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of individuals, families, and communities and protects and preserves the dignity of each.... Cultural competence is a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system or agency or among professionals and enable the system, agency, or professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations.... Operationally defined, cultural competence is the integration and transformation of knowledge about individuals and groups of people into specific standards, policies, practices, and attitudes used in appropriate cultural settings to increase the quality of services, thereby producing better outcomes (

The fundamental interpretation of culturally competent social work is different for each social worker. This difference in interpretation can make social work one of the most enriching, colorful, tactile, soul inspiring careers of all time. As a student, I fundamentally “got” exactly what cultural competence was. Being culturally competent meant that upon graduation, I would know how to ethically and effectively work with different types of people, from different towns, cities, regions, countries, with different dialects, speech patterns, belief systems, family systems, values, abilities, gifts, income, and educational backgrounds. Basically, I should be able to embrace the differences and similarities that each client would bring into my office and to remain open-minded and willing to learn new things about human beings when working with my clients. So, fundamentally, I was competent at being a culturally competent social 

After years of talking with clients, students, and colleagues, I knew my practice philosophy was changing—evolving—shifting. I was going deeper into doing what I was doing as a social worker. I was looking at a bigger picture, basically how I was changing the world, one person at a time. I was seeing that I was having universal impact, and that was 

I understood and fully comprehended that my actions with my clients had gone past being competent and had become compassionate. I understood cultural differences, and also that compassion included all cultures, all peoples, all walks of life. I understood that compassion was much bigger than culture. This understanding and the ultimate transformation took place solely because I yearned for a deeper connection to my

I struggled with not feeling like “I had been called.” So many people say that social work is a “calling.” My problem, however, was that I never felt or heard this “calling.” I sometimes felt that I was a fake social worker or that I was “faking it” because I didn’t get “called,” and I thought I was surrounded by all these great, and magical, mystical people who had gotten this miraculous call.

As the years passed and I began to authentically talk with my clients, my students, and colleagues, I understood that, yes, I needed to understand cultural competence, and I needed to be good at it. But that was just the beginning for me. I began to understand that cultural competence was a foundation upon which to enrich my career—a building block of sorts. Yes, yes. I knew I was competent. I was very technically efficient. But that wasn’t enough for me. In addition to being competent (the black/white side of social work), I also wanted to be compassionate (the colorful side of social work).

A great definition of compassion, defined by the Merriam-Wesbster dictionary, is:

a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, etc.: a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. (

I posit that we, as social workers, embrace a new philosophy about our profession. I no longer want to be merely culturally competent. I do not want to be seen as a technically efficient integrator and transformer of knowledge, skills, and policies to produce a better outcome. Yes, that technical, efficient, productive philosophy is about “answering a call.” That philosophy is very black or white.

Let’s consider a blending of these two ideas into one revolutionary practice goal—one that will change how social workers view our profession and how others view us, as well. Social workers should desire a career philosophy filled with black and white, and all the bright and beaming colors in between. We should embrace both competence and compassion. Thomas Merton states that “the whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another”
( As social workers, we understand and embrace systems theory and ecological theory. Compassion embraces these theories as well.

The competent aspect of social work is crucial; we are worthless if we are incompetent. The compassionate aspect of social work is crucial, as well; without compassion, we are just automaton/robots going through the motions of our day. We need both competence and compassion, black/white and color. Based on the definitions explained above, I encourage social workers to embrace a new term with a new definition: Compassionate Competence. Building on the two previous definitions, I would loosely define “compassionate competence” as:

an ethically, successful integration and transformation of knowledge, skills, attitudes, behaviors, and policies to sympathetically and consciously alleviate suffering (Swindell, 2013).

The first section of the definition, “an ethically, successful integration and transformation of knowledge, skills, attitudes, behaviors, and policies” focuses on the technical and competent aspect of our social work—successfully completing a task and doing so correctly. The second section of the definition “sympathetically and consciously alleviating suffering” focuses on the humanitarian, unselfish aspect of our profession—helping those who are suffering—AND includes all people, all cultures, all religions, all socioeconomic classes, all human beings. The definition is written clearly, simply, and succinctly and reads “alleviate suffering.” This means all suffering, not just certain types of suffering. Suffering is suffering, regardless of how it is presented. All cultures suffer. People within all cultures experience suffering. The original language in the definition of compassion reads “alleviate suffering.” It does not matter what culture, gender, age, disability, poverty level, religious affiliation...all that matters is suffering and the alleviation of that suffering.

It is important to note that culture is indeed a significant aspect of a person’s life and that this article is in no way diminishing the importance of culture. The article is only suggesting that we focus more on compassion (which includes cultural awareness and knowledge) than just on culture itself.

In conclusion, I feel that I must explain that this article comes from my own personal and spiritual journey within myself from a social worker’s perspective. Many readers may completely agree or disagree with the notion of a new practice goal. Some may say that they have been practicing this way their entire career and that this notion of “compassion” in social work is nothing new. I agree. There are approximately 995 articles with the terms “social work” and “compassion,” according to a search of Academic Search Complete. The majority of these articles focus on self-compassion, compassion fatigue syndrome, and compassion satisfaction. So this relationship between compassion and social work is not new. The purpose of this article, however, is to formally introduce the term “compassionate competence” as a practice goal within our profession. Whether one chooses to embrace this practice goal and include it within the practice repertoire is purely personal.

The culturally competent social worker is a technically proficient, efficient, effective, successful worker. Once social workers become successful at this, they can complete tasks with their eyes closed. The difference is that compassionately competent social workers become successful ONLY AFTER they open their eyes.

Joel A. Barker affirms that “Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.” (
The vision of compassion plus competent action can indeed change the world. The time is now for social work to shift into a higher calling, based on a higher vision, far reaching just culture, but embracing all of humanity.

BrainyQuote. (2013). Joel A. Barker quotes. Retrieved from
Fiercelight. (2012). Fiercelight: Where spirit goes deeper. Retrieved from
Compassionate. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary (11th ed.). Retrieved from
National Association of Social Workers. (2001). NASW standards of cultural competence. Retrieved from
Swindell, M. (2013). Compassionate competence: A letter to MSU-Meridian social work students. Student Orientation, Fall, 2013.
Marian L. Swindell, Ph.D., is an associate professor of social work at Mississippi State University.


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