As a counselor, what do you do when you dislike a client?
Have you ever counseled someone you found offensive? Or, maybe you liked the actual person, but dreaded sessions with them due to an annoying tic, the sound of their laugh, or something equally irritating to you?
As counselors, we’re supposed to have positive regard and a non-judgmental attitude when it comes to the clients we see. It may feel wrong, alarming even, when we find ourselves with an aversion to someone we want to help. In the very least, it feels very un-therapist-like.
This is one of the reasons why, as mental health professionals, it’s important to be aware of personal values as well as have an awareness of populations that are challenging to work with. This is necessary to avoid imposing personal values on the client, which is often done unintentionally. For example, if you know you cannot remain objective when working with sex offenders or someone with racist beliefs, the ethical path is to seek supervision/consultation and training.
While we should generally refrain from referring clients out based on our personal values, attitudes, and beliefs, it may be appropriate to terminate when it becomes apparent that the counseling relationship is harmful to the client or when the client is no longer benefiting from counseling. In such cases, the therapist should assist in referring and transitioning them to another provider.
Since dislike of a client is not an ethical reason for referring or terminating, here are 20 tips for when you find you do not like, are annoyed by, or dread sessions with a client.
20 Tips for When You Dislike a Client
1. To start, redefine how you view like vs. dislike.
Instead of liking/disliking, think relating to/not relating to. The more you think in terms of “dislike,” the more prone you are to it. It may even change how you treat that particular client.
2. Look for the positive.
Find a few things about the client that you appreciate or admire. Focus on their strengths and likable qualities. (Be sure to point out the strengths to the client!)
3. Practice empathy, compassion, and radical acceptance.
If the client is “unlikable” to you and possibly others, imagine how difficult it is to be in their shoes. They probably have an awareness, on some level at least, that others do not respond well to them.
4. During the first few sessions, ask the client about previous experiences in therapy, including what they liked or did not like, and what worked well for them.
If sessions have been challenging, it may be that the client is not responding to your interventions. Similarly, if a session is boring for you, it may be that you are using the wrong techniques. Change it up with a different approach.
5. Remain patient and open-minded.
Oftentimes, the solution to “dislike” is getting to know a person better. Also, be aware that what you are seeing could be a defense mechanism or strategy the client used to survive in the past. Your role as a counselor is to teach healthy coping skills (while at the same time validating the client for finding ways to survive).
6. Recognize transference and countertransference.
When you find that you initially dislike a client, explore transference with them. They may be resistant because you remind them of someone else (which impacts your personal reactions). If transference continues to hinder progress, consider termination. For countertransference, seek supervision and training.
7. If you feel emotionally drained or exhausted by a certain client, set a boundary.
Recognize when you are taking on too much of the client’s pain. Remember that you can be empathetic without feeling everything the client feels. Also, try to leave work at work. Do not let your clients’ problems consume you in your personal life. On the other hand, if you do not experience any empathy or find yourself uncaring, disinterested, or detached, consider taking a break. It may be time to reassess your fitness as a therapist or even explore a new career.
8. Recognize when the client is bullying, intimidating, insulting, dismissing, etc.
Do not take it personally. Point out the behavior in real time and then explore. Is the client aware of the behavior? Where did the client learn it? What are their intentions? How has it worked in the past? How might it impact others? What are alternative, prosocial behaviors?
9. If you are unsure of exactly why you are dreading a certain client or session, delve deep and do some reflection.
Seek supervision and consult to find what is bothersome to you.
10. If, on the other hand, you find that you are dreading all sessions, you might be burnt out or experiencing vicarious trauma.
It might be time to take some time off work, re-up your self-care game, and/or seek therapy yourself.
11. Learn from the “unlikeable” client.
Working with a client you find offensive or are annoyed by will challenge you more than working with a client who is personable, open, and motivated. You have to find ways to be compassionate and empathetic in order to connect with and help the challenging client. You will also learn about your own biases and become more self-aware. The “unlikeable” client will help you grow and improve as a clinician.
12. Recognize and ditch resentments.
If you resent or dislike a client because they are not progressing, not doing their homework, not following suggestions, etc., check yourself. You only provide the tools. It is up to the client to use them. Do not attach yourself to a client’s successes… or failures. Also, recognize where the client is in the change process. If you are using interventions for the “action” stage of change, but the client is in “precontemplation,” you will not get anywhere. Furthermore, instead of labeling the client as resistant, assess stage of change and match interventions accordingly. If the client continues to not progress and/or is not benefiting from therapy, consider termination.
13. If you realize it’s some nervous habit or tic that’s bothering you, consider pointing it out to the client in an honest and non-judgmental way, especially if you have a good rapport with or know the client well.
Broaching the subject opens the door for exploration. The client may not realize they do it or that others notice (and could be offended by) it. For example: a client who picks at their cuticles when they talk about their mother or who makes a joke whenever they feel uncomfortable. By noting the behavior, you increase awareness and the potential for growth.
14. When pointing out the annoying behavior/tic, consider using appropriate self-disclosure (or tell about someone you know) to help normalize the undesirable trait. This helps if the client seems embarrassed or uncomfortable.
Talk about how you used to bite your nails, for example. Or tell about someone who clicked their pen or smacked their gum and was able to ditch the bothersome habit. Be sure to tell about how you/they successfully changed the behavior!
15. Recognize when it’s behavioral/habitual vs. symptoms of a mental disorder.
For example, it can be challenging or frustrating to have a conversation with someone who is experiencing mania, but it is helpful to separate that person from their disorder. It may be something that have little or no control over, or have trouble managing. Provide your client with psychoeducation and teach about symptoms.
16. Similarly, recognize that some of what you are seeing may be a result of past trauma.
People react to trauma differently. What helped them survive in the past is no longer effective in the present, and their behaviors (i.e., frequent outbursts of anger, dishonesty, etc.) may even push others away. Teach coping strategies for recognizing and managing trauma reactions as well as teaching healthy coping skills.
17. Also, recognize when what you are seeing may be due to a brain injury.
A brain injury can cause personality changes and/or cognitive deficits. Someone with a brain injury could be forgetful, aggressive, anxious, impulsive, and lack emotional regulation, decision-making skills, and problem-solving skills. A thorough biopsychosocial assessment helps to identify brain injuries, but likewise note that there are many individuals who are unaware of past head injuries or their impact.
18. Teach social skills!
Try educating and roleplaying prosocial behavior when you find that you dislike a client. Also, it may be appropriate to let the client know how their behavior impacts you. For example, when a client frequently interrupts, point it out as it happens and express that it is off-putting. Then, wonder aloud how others feel when interrupted by the client. Suggest that they may feel disrespected, unimportant, undermined, or may altogether avoid conversations with the client.
19. If you dread seeing certain clients because you never know what to say, how to respond to them, or feel anxious about long pauses, stop!
You are making it about you, not the client. Recognize that beginner counselors almost always experience some discomfort and self-doubt. Accept that you may not say the “right” thing or be able to answer a question. Learn to be comfortable with silence. If you truly do not know what to say, be transparent. Say something like, “I’m not familiar with that. Let me think on it (or research it) and get back to you.” Do not allow your anxiety or self-doubt to hinder a client’s experience in therapy. To engage clients who are challenging or indifferent (i.e., never have anything to talk about), use evidence-based psychoeducational or interactive techniques (i.e., guided imagery, handouts, aromatherapy, etc.)
20. Lastly, be aware that if you are annoyed by or dislike a client, they will (most likely) pick up on it.
If you’ve already tried all the tips listed here and you still dislike a client, and if you are unable to be transparent, compassionate, empathetic, and/or show unconditional positive regard, consider termination and referral. Explore your strong reaction to the client with supervisors, and seek training to enhance self-awareness.
In conclusion, it is important for counselors to be aware of their reactions and biases when they dislike a client. Since it is unethical to refer a client due to personal dislike, counselors should utilize strategies for managing attitudes and assumptions while providing the client with effective, person-centered services.
When you experience feelings of “dislike” for a client, start by reframing your thoughts. Seek supervision and training. Also, effective counselors recognize the difference between personality and symptoms of mental illness, defense mechanisms, or trauma reactions.
As a therapist, do not take it personally, and always remember the roles transference and countertransference play. Set boundaries and practice regular self-care to avoid burnout. Lastly, recognize that there is something to love in everyone. Practice a strengths-based approach and focus on the positive.