Strategies to Build Rapport with Clients

Most therapists possess an innate desire to help others, and because of this emotional involvement, sometimes it can be challenging to convert the potential into practical results. Whilst we’ve tackled the basic premises which can help counsellors enter the market and attract clients, there is still one aspect of the counselling relationship which is indispensable for a counsellor’s success: client satisfaction. But isn’t that a matter of competence and an intrinsic part of being a counsellor?

Yes, it is. Being able to progress clients through to the achievement of their counselling goals has plenty to do with the counsellor’s ability to perform his/her services at the most basic level. However, it is exactly that logical assumption that induces many counsellors to oversee basic communication needs and counselling skills which will be the key for their success as a professional counsellor.

The Counselling Setting

Prior to engaging in the interpersonal communication process, there are basic requirements which will influence the client’s ability to express him/herself, and to make decisions regarding the relationship. These aspects refer to the counselling setting, which in the initial meetings can cause a significant impact in the client’s perception towards the counsellor. In a nutshell, the counsellor should observe the following:

  • Comfort: a comfortable setting improves client expression of feelings.
  • Security/Privacy: providing the client with security during a session.
  • Noise control: ensuring that noise does not affect communication.
  • Stimuli control: a neutral environment (light colours and decoration).
  • Supportive environment: a space in which the client can share in their own pace.
  • Facilities: Amenities, décor and other office facilities are relevant aspects to be observed.

Rules of Engagement

There are certain ‘rules of engagement’ which dictate the likelihood of a counselling relationship being constructive, and these rules apply to any context. For example, if you have just been introduced to someone at a social event, you should initially avoid asking personal questions as that is perceived to be intrusive. These rules are inherited by particular social groups, and following them is the basis for creating a positive profile and developing a receptive attitude from other group members.

In the counselling setting, there is much more necessity in applying such rules. The client is there for a specific purpose, which requires a particular approach to the situation. The client is also likely to be “uneasy” or unsure about what to expect, which increases the ‘risk’ of making a bad impression or not developing good rapport. Finally, there are more urgent ethical guidelines which must be complied within the counselling room, but would be of little relevance in a social setting.

In order to encourage the client to engage in a formal relationship, the counsellor must first avoid the common pitfalls which can make communication difficult. The first and foremost issue to consider in this scenario is the elusive impact of ‘first impressions’ in the eyes of a client. Trust and rapport are emotional keywords in a client’s subconscious, and once they have been negatively ‘red-flagged’ for any reason; it is very unlikely that relationship will move forward. So what can make this occur?

Dodging the Pitfalls

The standard communication pitfalls found in any relationship cover most potential problems of the first couple of meetings. They relate to a range of conscious and subconscious thinking patterns which could create communication gaps between the client and counsellor.

These patterns are based on the each individual’s education, relationships, attitudes, motivational targets, self-confidence levels and a range of other factors. Because the initial stages of a counselling relationship tend to be open and unpredictable, a good strategy to move forward is engaging in prevention: aiming to reduce the probability of communication pitfalls. To prevent this, counsellors must be aware of the common mistakes, or negative patterns, of good communication:

  • Judging: Criticising, name-calling, diagnosing and praising evaluatively
  • Sending Solutions: Ordering, threatening, moralising, and advising
  • Avoiding the Other’s Concerns: Diverting, logically arguing and reassuring

The probable outcome of avoiding such pitfalls is establishing grounds for a productive relationship through good rapport and developing a certain level of trust and openness.

The Mindset of the Client

When it comes to interpersonal communication in therapy, being flexible and responsive is one of the most beneficial skills a counsellor can have. Different mindsets and emotional states require a particular approach; and the counsellor’s ability to adjust to a client’s needs is likely to dictate the success of that relationship.

In order to better exemplify the diversity of mindsets which clients may approach counseling with, there are five generic profiles of clients – and respective strategies -to help improve the relationship and enhance client-counsellor rapport.

Profile 1: an emotionally unstable client

The client is emotionally unstable and finding difficulty in expressing him/herself.

Emotionally unstable clients normally require a client-centred approach which enforces the need to establish rapport and trust, and to ensure the client is aware that he or she is in a safe and friendly environment. The client will normally have difficulty in expressing him/herself because he/she is unable or not ready to deal with emotions.

Counselling strategies to establish rapport would include: using self-disclosure to relate to the client’s situation and create an emotional link; creating goals and accountability in order to encourage action from the client; providing transparency and positivity through communication.

Profile 2: an involuntary or skeptical client

The client has been forced to attend to counselling (e.g. legally mandated).

This type of client may be difficult to deal with in the early stages of the relationship. Normally, he or she will be skeptical about the process, and may not acknowledge any need to change. It is important for the therapist to gain respect from the client, and use that respect to establish trust.

One of the most common strategies to gain respect and create responsiveness from the client is to outline the process of counselling: what he or she is there for; what is the structure of the relationship; what are the rights and duties of the client; what might be the expected positive outcomes. Solution-focused strategies are a good way to create a sense of accountability and need for change.

Profile 3: the child

The client is a young child or adolescent.

Dealing with children is always challenging as there is a perceived ‘bigger’ communication gap. The goal for the counsellor is to establish trust using humour; engaging in activities such as games; encouraging a collaborative approach; using self-disclosure and role-playing. These are all common strategies to help improve communication with young clients.

Profile 4: the uncommitted client

Lack of commitment can be a challenging problem in the counselling setting. Normally, a client with little or no commitment has a specific agenda which justifies their attendance at a counselling session (an example would be a husband who was asked by his wife to attend counselling in order to preserve their marriage).

Framing and re-framing are good tactics to re-model the way the client perceives the counselling relationship: shifting from the ‘helping’ mode to the collaborative approach. Creating goals and structuring will also motivate the client to go through the necessary stages for change, collect the rewards, and move on with his/her own life.

Profile 5: the demanding client

A demanding client will normally believe that the counsellor will provide answers to his/her problems. They will come to counselling without much resolve to act upon their current situation, and will normally create very unrealistic expectations regarding the counselling relationship and the counsellor.

Again, encouraging accountability, managing expectations and establishing well-planned goals is a good approach. The client should be encouraged to realise that change can only occur from within. Using role-playing, narrative therapy skills, and/or a solution-focused approach to empower and encourage the client may be the key for deriving motivation.

Hopefully, the above strategies assist with providing a firm foundation to establish the client-counsellor relationship.