The Delicate Balance

It can be risky for a therapist to provide feedback to a client regarding what areas need improvement, as it could easily be construed as criticism — ultimately alienating the client instead of bringing him closer to his therapeutic goals. And chances are, if your client is offended by the feedback, he won’t bother to listen to whatever you have to say.

However, when you are balancing between constructive criticism and criticism that is harmful, there are seven key strategies to utilize that will ensure you’re giving feedback that will be helpful and effective. Knowing which one to integrate can make or break the session, and perhaps your precious therapeutic alliance!

1. Know Your Client

As you begin to become more familiar with your client, ask him the question, “How do you like to receive feedback?” Understanding who your client is and his comfort space are essential to meeting him where he is. You will need to deliver feedback in a way that works for him. One size does not fit all.

Before providing any feedback, certainly at the beginning, don’t jump right into it. If he asks for feedback very early in the relationship, resist sharing. Instead spend time exploring what is important to him, so that you understand the best context within which to deliver the feedback at the appropriate moment. People engage best with criticism when they feel they are understood and valued by the therapist for who they are.

2. Focus On ‘Doing,’ Not ‘Being’

Your feedback should be focused on the client’s behavior and actions, and not on her as a person. Share with your client how these behaviors may be impacting her psyche and perhaps that of others. Break your feedback down into key points while monitoring her response. If you see acceptance and interest, then it’s time to go a little deeper.

3. Request Permission To Challenge Him

During the initial therapy sessions, it is crucial to spend time establishing engagement expectations with your client. Explain that you will be both his best cheerleader and most critical challenger. And ask for permission to do that. When the time comes to challenge the client, reminding him of your agreement will open that door.

4. Connect From Your Heart

Offering constructive criticism is a delicate balancing act between being objective and empathetic. After looking carefully at your client’s situation, remove yourself from the equation to permit yourself to view it with objectivity and, when you are delivering constructive criticism, be sure you do it with a heavy dose of empathy.

The best way to determine whether your criticism is constructive or harmful is to be aware of how it is being received. How is your client’s energy? And how is yours? Are you speaking to your client from your head or your heart? It is your ego that is doing the talking? Never provide feedback when you aren’t feeling that special rapport, and always give feedback from the belief that your client can improve.

5. Empower Clients To Draw Their Conclusions

The most effective way to stay clear of giving unhelpful and harmful criticism can be found in empowering your client to draw her conclusions. When beginning this process you need to be careful not to come across as manipulative. But if done correctly, this can be a real eye-opener for clients, without risking them harm.

Arriving at the realization yourself is always better than having that realization provided for you. An effective strategy is to say, “If you were giving this feedback to yourself, how would you say it in a way that you could actually hear it and thoughtfully consider what to do about it?” Then give your client plenty of time to think it through before responding.

Changing the feedback from a monologue into a dialogue by asking your client to participate will make your client feel validated and can be extremely helpful in building a strong rapport.

6. Keep Things Positive

Instead of offering criticism of what your client is doing wrong, explain the behavior that will make her successful. For example, rather than saying, “You aren’t being sensitive to your family,” you might say instead, “Let your husband and children express their feelings before you respond, so they know you heard them; then offer your point of view.” It’s much easier and more empowering to embrace and achieve a positive goal.

Much of the time, the problem isn’t with the criticism itself, but rather with the approach that is taken. Keeping a positive tone to the feedback gives you a much better chance of realizing the desired result.

7. Try a Compliment Sandwich

The compliment sandwich is a well-known technique and has been found very effective at delivering negative feedback more positively. A compliment sandwich is just as it sounds. Begin and finish your feedback with some positive feedback, “sandwiching” the negatives in between.

By softening the blow of the negative feedback that’s difficult for your client to hear, it will be easier to swallow.

Feedback Flexibility

Feedback can take different forms. Active feedback that both validates and constructively adds value to your sessions can be very effective for clients who desire that level of engagement.

On the other hand, passive feedback, such as providing a safe and supportive space for the client to simply share painful thoughts and feelings devoid of specific guidance, is equally valid and very helpful for clients who need that support.

And sometimes your client’s needs will change from one session to the next. Do you want to vent for today? Just say so. Do you need help getting through a particular trouble spot? Just ask. Do you crave a great breathing technique to reduce your anxiety during a stressful situation? Just speak up.

A well-trained therapist can do it all!