In the complementary therapy space, we sometimes deal with negative client reactions. Some clients yell, some insult, some sling hurtful accusations. It may be hard not to take these attacks personally, whether you get angry or it creates self-doubt. You may get upset in the moment and worry about the incident after. All of this is normal, whether your first difficult client is in your first week or years into your experience as a therapist.
In these moments, it's important to remember that therapy may not be easy for everyone and unhappy clients are your opportunity to shine as a therapy professional.
Some people struggle with self-improvement. They fight themselves and others around them any time a real path to progress is opened. Therapy can trigger fear of the unknown or existing self-destructive disorders. We know that therapy can free emotions that have been locked up for years, which can cause an outburst of emotion. A few clients are even toxic without the genuine desire to self-improve. This is your opportunity to shine as a therapist by keeping your cool and approaching the anger from a position of healing.
Every natural therapist needs a few strategies to deal with difficult clients. With the right techniques and a little practice, you can work to help clients on a troubling journey or break away with a referral. Here's how to maintain your peaceful neutrality principles while maintaining control of difficult client situations:
- Stay Calm
- Centre Yourself and Gain Perspective
- Listen Carefully and Fully
- Apologise for the Unhappiness
- Reframe it Back
- Rebuild Therapist Relationship or
- Break Away with a Referral
1. Take a Moment to Breathe and Reflect
As people, we tend to get upset in upsetting situations. When a client lashes out or gets angry, it's normal to feel overwhelmed or even angry at the client. Don't let these emotions take over. Instead, ask for or take a moment to compose yourself. Breathe in and meditate on the situation at hand. Consider the situation and your actions from the outside and ask yourself how to best resolve the situation. This will help you escape the personal responsive emotions that being attacked can evoke. With just a few seconds of mindful awareness and consideration, you can handle most negative client situations with calm and effectiveness.
2. Anger Often Comes from Fear
As a therapist, always remember that anger comes from fear. It's a natural survival response and in optimal situations, anger gives each person the energy to change what they are afraid of. However, we're not talking about fighting tigers anymore. In a therapy environment, most often the fear comes from fear of change, like fear of trying new things or fear of becoming a new person. If you remember this, it can be easier to figure out why a client is upset and if you have a positive route to re-channel that energy.
3. Imagine an Audience
When you're one-on-one with someone getting upset, it feels pretty personal. Your instincts will be to react with similar energy, but the right answer is to stay calm and maintain perspective.
The easiest way to do this is by imagining you are on stage with an audience watching. The audience technique makes it easier for you to step out of the situation personally and take the actions that you would advise to a third party. Your audience is a reflection of your sense of self. By imagining that you're on stage, your most patient and capable self will take charge to win the 'scene' you're playing out.
4. Listen to What They are Saying
Hear out your client to the full extent of their outburst. When they pause, show interest and ask calm follow-up questions. Ask them to voice the root of their disagreement and what they want to happen next. As a therapist, the client's full viewpoint will give you insight on how to handle the situation. You might reveal inflexible hostility, but you might also get to the root of a client who is struggling with change. Getting to the end of a rant often takes the wind out of their sails and avoids direct confrontation.
5. Apologise for Their Discomfort
Apologise, even if the client is wrong. Apologise for the client's difficult time and for the negative experience they may be having. "I'm sorry that you're not satisfied with your session" is a neutral and empathic way to diffuse the confrontation. Agree with the client's basic points, like that therapy should be beneficial and they deserve to feel that benefit.
Agreeing with someone ready for a fight can often steal their momentum. Many people will instinctually start to defend your position if you join their side in the conversation. Take away the 'me versus you' perspective and they will have a harder time being confrontational.
6. Reframe It to Them in Calm Words
Once you have an idea of why the client is being resistant, you can help them gain perspective. Neutrally reframe each of their points back to them and ask if this is correct. Bring their outburst into the realm of discussion instead of emotional expression. Ask them to either confirm the viewpoint or put their own words to what they were expressing. You can regain control of the conversation and begin guiding clients back toward constructive conversation.
From here, you can re-enter the therapist relationship. You can help examine their motivations and discuss remedies to either the feelings or the situation that caused the outburst. If they don't want to seek a remedy, that is their choice. However, genuine clients who are struggling with change may also apologise or come back after a few days of reflection.
7. Rebuild the Therapist Relationship
If you handled the outburst calmly, empathetically, and respectfully then you may have preserved your therapist-client relationship. Many clients respect a therapist who can handle the occasional outburst, and some truly need your resistance to help them change. If your client comes back and is willing to move forward, then rebuild their therapeutic plan and your therapist-client relationship.
Clients who struggle with change often know this about themselves. They may apologise (though some don't). They may explain that they are habitually self-destructive or hot-headed. They may say they're trying to change some core personality traits, overcome lifelong hurdles, or are only attending therapy for the sake of a loved one. If you can be understanding, you can often turn a difficult client into a long-term client relationship.
8. Or Break Away with a Referral
Writing referrals is a natural part of treating clients. Your goal is the greatest balance and wellness for each client, which sometimes means referring them to a colleague. Outbursts often reveal the true needs and feelings of a client, which can help you better pinpoint their needs. If their needs don't align with what you can provide, you send them on to another who can help.
Tell you're client that it's OK that you're just not a good fit for each other. Then recommend one to five other therapists who might be able to help. For example, you may recommend a physical therapist, meditation instructor, grief counsellor, or a colleague who shares your skills and is better suited to the client's needs. Then shoot an alert to those you have recommended, to let them know the client might be incoming.
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