5 Key Terms Every Human Services Professional Should Know

Five Key Terms Every Human Services Professional Should Know

    • Empathy
    • Empowerment
    • Biases
    • Trauma
    • Nontraditional Partnership

Professionals in the human services deal with individuals and organizations to solve problems of economy, health, mental health and equality. The “toolbox” they use changes constantly as society changes. Some of these tools are expressed by the terms listed in this article. Here are five terms every human services worker should know.


Empathy is not the same thing as sympathy. Sympathy is the act of responding in a similar manner or with feelings like the client’s. Empathy allows workers to decide upon interventions based on needs without getting caught up in the emotions of the situation. It involves active-listening skills and the ability to see things without looking through the lens of personal biases and feelings. It also is based upon recognizing the client’s goals and aspirations.


People have the freedom to choose their actions until it imposes upon someone else’s freedom. Human services professionals can be caught up in “doing for” a client. After assessing a need, workers may decide on an intervention and embark upon a treatment with or without the client’s participation. The problem with that approach is that it isn’t lasting. Unless there is change, clients relapse into the system instead of graduating from it. The system of social services depends upon a transfer of power from one individual to another. Power starts out in the hands of the worker but must be put into the hands of the client. The role of the human services professional in this process is informing the client about choices, connecting them to resources and supporting the client in his or her right to choose how to respond.


Human services professionals take courses in psychology and in understanding bias, but most people retain some prejudices. Biases have a bearing on human services delivery because it can presuppose that the victim of a domestic violence issue is most likely female, for instance, when the evidence shows that nearly half of victims are male. It can also lead workers to advocate for maternal custody in a child abuse case when the father might be a safer choice. Although professionals cannot avoid having bias, they can understand it and can employ techniques to navigate through it.


Although human services professionals have always dealt with trauma victims, the field is now seeing the emergence of secondary victims. After 9/11, media coverage exposed so many viewers to the sights and sounds of the tragedy that some were traumatized by the reality of a terrorist attack. All children in foster care are trauma victims simply because they have been ripped from their families. Whether the families were toxic or not, they were the child’s “normal.” Workers have understood that some behaviors were caused by this trauma. Now, with the advances of technology, people are exposed to media coverage of wars, mass-shootings and terror that lead to a pervasive fear that is traumatizing. This leads to another level of victims impacted not by the perpetration of violence upon them, but by the vicarious experience of watching violence.

Nontraditional Partnership

This trend in the human services profession involves collaboration between agencies and organizations that have historically operated in parallel trajectories. Often, the entities offered services to the same clients, resulting in redundancies and in unneeded expenses. According to Government Technology Magazine, this concept leads to new areas of discussion around human service principles, adding new people and resources to the “mix.” It results in consideration of which agencies have the best competencies to address specific needs and lowers the cost of delivering the services. The concept also results in a decidedly client-centered approach to human services.

Related Resource: Top 10 Affordable Masters in Social Work: 2018

There are other terms representing tools. The terms change as technology and society change, but the ideas are basic to the profession. Every human services professional should know and understand these concepts.