This article draws on findings from a knowledge exchange (KE) project, which involved academics working with local authority social workers around a theme of engaging with involuntary clients. The user engagement agenda is actively promoted in social work but is not straightforward, reflecting a mish-mash of client rights and managerial and consumerist agendas. Engaging with involuntary clients, in particular, those whose involvement with social work is mandated by law, rarely fits into policy agendas and requires a range of conditions and practitioner skills for it to happen effectively. A parallel aim of our project was to explore what was seen to be effective in the KE and knowledge mobilisation (KM) processes when local authorities and university academics work together. Like client engagement, KE is also seen as ‘a good thing’ but in reality it is similarly problematic. In this article, we trace the growth of both client engagement and KE agendas, particularly in relation to social work. We describe our project and discuss its findings. A number of parallel processes might be identified in ‘what works’ with hard to reach social work clients and ‘what works’ in KE/KM. Neither are linear or necessarily rational processes. What does seem to hold both together, however, is the nature of relationships built up between, in the first instance, social workers and those they work with and, in the second, between academics and local authority practitioners. These findings suggest that personal qualities that might be associated with the concept of emotional intelligence play an important part in enabling both social work practice and KE/KM to happen effectively.