Effective communication is at the core of the client-therapist relationship. If you’re having trouble getting through to a client, or have hit an impasse in your attempts to bond and communicate with your clients, don’t despair; there are several strategies you can try.
1. Be Welcoming
Particularly at first, the therapy session can feel a bit clinical or even business-like. Your personality will add warmth, comfort, and a degree of familiarity to the process. Studies have shown that, when the personalities of clients and therapists jive, this leads to more successful outcomes.
This may require you to adjust your communication style to reflect the preferred habits of your client, to be like a “tuning fork.” The idea is to converse in your client’s language, while simultaneously helping them center themselves.
For example, for those anxious but quiet clients, adopt a calm and soothing approach. With reserved confidence and without intimidation, you can encourage your client to venture out of her shell. For one who is hyperactive, present an energized disposition while remaining at ease.
2. Active Listening
Active listening is fundamental for any therapist-client relationship, especially when the client is hesitant to open up. Engaged listening validates the speaker by showing that the words being spoken are worth paying attention to. Active listening has three stages:
First, you must actively listen to and analyze what the speaker is saying. Making eye contact and using body language such as nodding, smiling, and leaning forward are critical. Don’t get distracted or allow your mind to wander. When your client is telling a story, ask clarifying questions. Use verbal cues such as, “tell me more” and “I see.”
You must remember what people tell you. If you are seeing many patients weekly or bi-weekly, this can be challenging. If necessary, take some notes or use memory tricks. When you can recall details from previous sessions, it helps build rapport with the client and makes her feel understood.
Provide both verbal and nonverbal feedback to show that you both hear and understand what the client is saying. Summarize what the client has said to reinforce this. Highlight your client’s emotions. For example, “If I understand you correctly, you’re feeling both guilty and angry right now. Is that right?”
3. Build a Powerful Relationship
Research has shown that the single most important variable in successful therapy is the strength of your therapeutic alliance. According to psychologist Carl Rogers, the therapeutic alliance is essentially the robust bond between therapist and client, consisting of three components:
Agreement between client and therapist on goals
Collaboration on therapy-related tasks
Other ways to build rapport with clients include:
Realize that some clients will feel anxious talking about personal matters or allowing a stranger into their worlds. Hold off on discussing more sensitive topics. As your relationship progresses and your client feels more secure, she will begin to share.
One way to gain your client’s trust is to guide your client toward a small solution as soon as possible. Offering words of encouragement, giving positive feedback, or providing some helpful tips can demonstrate your expertise. Your client’s confidence in you will grow after she sees that your advice on a small matter was spot on!
Find your “In”
Take the time to learn about your client’s interests, dislikes, worldviews, and strengths. If you can appeal to a client’s principles, talents, and even sense of pride, things may begin to click. When you utilize a metaphor related to your client’s interests, it shows that you pay attention and understand her world.
4. Carefully Focus your Questions
Before beginning the first session, be sure to review the information the client provided on her intake form. She may spend 20 minutes answering questions on your detailed intake form. If you are just going to repeat these same questions face to face, your client may justifiably feel you are wasting her time.
Instead, use the information on the form to dig even deeper. Allow your client the space to expand upon the answers that were already given. One great way to extrapolate from the information on the form is to ask, “What brings you in today? Why now and not three months ago?”
Through your specific, focused, and insightful questions, you discover valuable information and encourage your clients to share. Remember that the client relationship strengthens with time. Some clients will share only superficial information at first. But over time, you will see that a clearer picture of who you are talking to will emerge.
5. Ask Open-Ended Questions – Then Answer Them
“Ask open-ended questions!” You know, questions where the answer needs to be more than a simple yes or no. So instead of asking, “Do you like the color of these walls?” you ask something like: “What is it about this room that you like?”
But sometimes you may need to take this a step further. Instead of waiting for your client to answer the question, you answer those questions yourself. In your answer, mention many universal human needs that we all share. It’s a safe bet some of them will resonate with your client even though the client hasn’t yet shared anything significant.
And you may even notice that, although your client isn’t talking, you may catch him nodding without even being consciously aware of it. This may become a doorway for him to begin to talk.
Your Attitude Could be the Game Changer!
You need to believe that there is something, however small, that you can connect to on some level with every client. When your client feels that, she will be motivated to keep coming back.
With everyone you counsel, irrespective of how much they hold back or resist, you need to bring a spirit of excitement to the relationship. That spirit is the sense that you can’t wait to come and have another session. There’s something that you find intriguing about him, and you are excited to continue discussing it.
At the end of the day, a therapist’s authentic desire and determination to connect may be the most critical component of the therapeutic alliance. And once that desire and determination are felt by the client, these become a game-changer like none other.