Holistic engagement gets at the heart of the unpredictability of connection with people in complex environments, where sometimes a thousand things can go wrong without anyone noticing or saying anything, and sometimes a thousand things can go right and we have no idea how we have just done well. At times, we seem to bring the exact same skills and efforts, yet we experience such diverse outcomes. Thus, the practice of holistic engagement can right the course of a profession in need of direction.
By definition, holistic engagement is an intentional practice necessary to use the whole self to tune into and creatively respond within a dynamic globalizing social work environment. Crucial to a full understanding of holistic engagement, the notion of it being a practice versus a destination informs the dynamic and fluid nature of how we engage ourselves and others in any given moment. Beyond just presence, empathy, or active listening, which are current hallmarks of social work practice (Gair, 2013; Grant, 2014), holistic engagement fuses these and other concepts into an active, participatory process—a moving, breathing, developing practice that empowers a new understanding of the dimension of connection and an integrative way to learn, intentionally and continually.
We conceptualize holistic engagement as fusion of core social work skills into an active practice and identify a malleable set of four skills: presence with the whole self, whole self-inquiry; empathic connection, and compassionate attention. Taken together, these four skills are at once the foundation and ever- changing internal systems at work when social workers engage holistically. In addition, they are the skills that social work educators are seeking to develop in the classroom through a variety of pedagogies toward transformative social work practice. Holistic engagement is not necessarily a practice that develops on a predictable trajectory. A tool to strengthen integrative capability, holistic engagement creates pathways and takes us on the journey. The following detailed exploration of each skill creates the living mosaic of possibilities and unpredictability holistic engagement offers.