When You Dislike a Client

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 client, but dreaded sessions with them due to an annoying tic, the sound of their laugh, or something equally irritating to you.

As a therapist, it’s important to be aware of personal values as well as any populations you find difficult to work with. This is necessary to avoid imposing your own values on or harming the client. For example, if you cannot remain objective when working with sex offenders or racists, the ethical path is to seek supervision/consultation and training.

While we should generally refrain from referring clients based on 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 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 clients.

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.

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.

Explore transference with the client. 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, 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.

Seek supervision and consultation 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 is 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 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 find a nervous habit or tic (outside of transient tic disorder) bothersome, consider pointing it out to the client (in a 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. Use appropriate self-disclosure or tell about “a person I know” (with a similar habit) to help normalize an undesirable trait. Also, explain how the habit was eliminated.

For example, say, “When I realized that I said ‘um’ nearly every other word, I recorded my conversations and then restated them without the ‘ums’ until it became second nature.” Or, tell about someone who clicked their pen or smacked their gum until they were made aware, and as a result, ditched the bothersome habit.

15. Recognize the difference between patterns of speech/behaviors and 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. Provide your client with psychoeducation and teach about symptoms.

16. Similarly, recognize that some of what you are seeing may be a person’s reaction to trauma.

People react to trauma differently and find unique and varied ways to cope. Teach coping strategies for managing trauma reactions.

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!

Educate and roleplay prosocial behavior. 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 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. 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.

Professional Membership Organizations for Mental Health Professionals

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 professional membership organizations for mental health clinicians and specialists. This listing includes American Counseling Association (ACA) and American Psychological Association (APA) divisions.

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


Professional Membership Organizations for Mental Health Professionals

National (United States)

American Counseling Association (ACA) Divisions
American Psychological Association (APA) Divisions

Canada

UK & Ireland

Australia & New Zealand

European Organizations

International Organizations & Associations


Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC, LSATP

Do You Speak Therapist??

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

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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.

Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC, LSATP

Professional Development 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.


Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC, LSATP