20 Tips for When You Dislike a Client

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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.


Summary

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.

78 Professional Membership Organizations for Mental Health Workers

A list of membership associations for mental health counselors, psychotherapists, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, specialists, etc., including ACA/APA divisions and international organizations

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This is a list of 78+ professional membership organizations for mental health clinicians and specialists. It includes the divisions of the American Counseling Association (ACA) and the American Psychological Association (APA).

For additional resources for mental health professionals on this site, see Must-Read Books for Therapists and Resources for Mental Health Professionals.


JUMP TO A SECTION:


Professional Membership Organizations for Mental Health Professionals

National (United States)

  1. American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry
  2. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
  3. American Academy of Clinical Psychology
  4. American Academy of Forensic Psychology
  5. American Academy of Psychodynamic Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis
  6. American Art Therapy Association
  7. American Association for Community Psychiatry
  8. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
  9. American Association of Christian Counselors
  10. American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists
  11. American Association of Suicidology
  12. American Board of Forensic Psychology
  13. American Board of Professional Psychology
  14. American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology
  15. American Clinical Social Work Association
  16. American Counseling Association
  17. American Dance Therapy Association
  18. American Group Psychotherapy Association
  19. American Institute of Stress (AIS)
  20. American Mental Health Counselors Association
  21. American Music Therapy Association
  22. American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children
  23. American Psychiatric Association
  24. American Psychoanalytical Association
  25. American Psychological Association
  26. American School Counselor Association
  27. American Society of Addiction Medicine
  28. American Society of Clinical Hypnosis
  29. American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology
  30. American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama
  31. American Sociological Association
  32. Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies
  33. Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology
  34. Association for Contextual Behavioral Science
  35. Association for Death Education and Counseling
  36. Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice
  37. Association for Play Therapy
  38. Association for Psychological Science
  39. Association for Transpersonal Psychology
  40. Association for Women in Psychology
  41. Association of Black Psychologists
  42. Association of Humanistic Psychology
  43. B.F. Skinner Foundation
  44. Christian Association for Psychological Studies
  45. Cognitive Neuroscience Society
  46. Cognitive Science Society
  47. Comparative Cognition Society
  48. Experimental Psychology Society
  49. Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences
  50. Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry
  51. National Association for Addiction Professionals
  52. National Association for Children’s Behavioral Health
  53. National Association for Poetry Therapy
  54. National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis
  55. National Association for Rural Mental Health
  56. National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers
  57. National Association of Christian Counselors
  58. National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists
  59. National Association of Forensic Social Work
  60. National Association of Social Workers
  61. National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors
  62. National Board for Certified Counselors
  63. National Council on Family Relations
  64. National Education Association
  65. National Hypnotherapy Society
  66. National Latinx Psychological Association
  67. North American Drama Therapy Association
  68. North American Society of Adlerian Psychology
  69. North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity
  70. Professional Association of Christian Counselors and Psychotherapists
  71. Psychometric Society
  72. Society for Neuroscience
  73. Society for Personality Assessment
  74. Society for Police and Criminal Psychology
  75. Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science
  76. Society of Experimental Psychologists
  77. Society of Experimental Social Psychology
  78. Society of Multivariate Experimental Psychology
American Counseling Association (ACA) Divisions
American Psychological Association (APA) Divisions

Canada

UK & Ireland

Australia & New Zealand

European Organizations

International Organizations & Associations


Do You Speak Therapist? 50 Expressions That Never Fail

A list of common questions and phrases used in therapy – includes a free PDF printable version of this resource

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Image by DanielCubas from Pixabay

Do You Speak Therapist?

Therapists have their own unique (and purposeful) language. We may use clinical jargon when talking to other clinicians, but when we’re with our clients (and most likely, with other significant people in our lives), we are focused and thoughtful. We speak therapist.

Therapy is a tool for self-discovery; as therapists, it’s important to know how to effectively employ this tool. (For example, a hammer, while a useful tool, would not be effective if someone used the handle to pound a nail instead of the head.) What we say and how we say it is powerful: open-ended questions, reflections, clarifications, etc.


The following is a list of questions/phrases I find myself using in individual therapy and group sessions to explore, empathize, empower, and motivate change, including a few versions of the “miracle question” (a question used in therapy that asks the client to imagine what their life would look like if, miraculously, all of their problems disappeared and everything was perfect).

Click below to access a printable PDF version of this list.


Do You Speak Therapist?

1. How are you feeling?

2. How does/did that make you feel?

3. What would happen if you gave yourself permission to feel your emotions?

4. What was that experience like for you?

5. When did you first notice that…

6. When did you first recognize that…

7. What are your current internal experiences and reactions?

8. I’m noticing that…

9. What I’m hearing is…

10. It sounds like…

11. I wonder if…

12. It makes a lot of sense hearing it from your perspective… and, I wonder what would happen if…

13. May I share some feedback with you?

14. Are you open to a suggestion?

15. Would you like to hear a different perspective?

16. May I share my observations?

17. Would you like to know more about [mental health topic]?

18. Some research indicates that [evidence that supports an idea], but other studies have found that [evidence that doesn’t support an idea].

19. Tell more about that.

20. Tell me what that was like for you.

21. Will you say more about that?

22. Can you speak to…

23. I’m not sure I understand.

24. Help me to understand.

25. Correct me if I’m wrong, but…

26. What am I missing? Something doesn’t quite match up…

27. Is there anything else I need to know?

28. Did I hear you correctly when you said…

29. May I pause you for a minute?

30. Can we return to what you said earlier about…

31. It looks like you shut down when I said [previous statement or question]. Can we talk about it?

32. You seem distracted today. Do you want to talk about something else?

33. Do you want to take a break from this topic?

34. What do you think [name of relative/significant other/friend/colleague] would say if they were here in this room with us?

35. If it was [name of relative/significant other/friend/colleague] in this situation, what advice would you give them?

36. What does [belief/action/feeling] look like to you?

37. What does [belief/action/feeling] mean to you?

38. What message did you hear when they said…

39. How would your life be different if you didn’t have [mental illness, an addiction, this problem, etc.]?

40. Was there anything you could have done differently?

41. It sounds like you were doing the best you could with what you had at the time.

42. Honestly, I’m not sure how I would have reacted if in your shoes.

43. You’re the expert on you.

44. I wish I had the answer to that.

45. That’s a really good question. What do you think?

46. On the one hand [client statement or behavior], but on the other [contrary client statement or behavior]

47. You say [client statement], but your actions say…

48. I’m concerned that…

49. I can only imagine how [emotion word] that was for you.

50. Can we explore this more?


For additional conversation starters and questions, see 161 Questions to Explore Values, Ideas, & Beliefs.

20 Professional Development Ideas for Counselors

20 professional development ideas for counselors, social workers, and other mental health clinicians

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Professional development encompasses all activities that provide or strengthen professional knowledge/skills. Ongoing professional development is a requirement for mental health practitioners in order to maintain competency and for keeping up-to-date on the latest research and evidence-based practices in an ever-changing field.

Listed below are several ideas for counselor professional development.


Professional Development for Counselors

1 Find a mentor (and meet with them at least once a month).

2 Sign up for relevant e-mail lists. A few I find the most helpful/informative: Brain & Behavior Foundation, National Institute of Mental Health, and SAMHSA.

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3 Become a member of a professional organization (i.e. American Counseling Association).

4 Keep up-to-date on the latest research. If you are a member of a professional organization, take advantage of your member benefits; you likely have access to a professional journal. You can also browse sites like ScienceDaily or use an app like Researcher.

5 Facilitate professional trainings or manage a booth at a conference.

6 Read counseling and psychology books (such as On Being a Therapist by Kottler or Mindsight by Siegel).

7 Practice awareness. Know your values, limitations, and personal biases.

8 Become familiar with local resources in your community.

9 Volunteer.

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10 Join a professional counseling forum and participate in discussions. The ACA has several. You could also go the reddit route (i.e. r/psychotherapy).

11 Review your professional code of ethics on a regular basis. (Link to the ACA Code.)

12 Attend webinars, trainings, and conferences. Stay informed by subscribing to email lists, participating in professional forums, and searching Eventbrite for local events; search “mental health.” PESI is another source, but the seminars can be costly.

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13 Network/consult.

14 Subscribe to psychology magazines like Psychology Today or Psychotherapy Networker.

15 Further your education by taking classes or earning a certificate.

16 Pick a different counseling skill to strengthen each week. (You can even use flashcards to pick a new skill or simply review!)

17 Write an article or book (or book review!)

18 Take free online courses.

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19 Listen to podcasts (like Therapy Chat or Counselor Toolbox).

20 Practice self-care on a regular basis to prevent burnout. Why is self-care included in a post on professional development? Because self-care is crucial for counselor wellness; a counselor experiencing burnout puts his/her clients at risk.