Traps for the Unwary: Ways Practitioners Build Resistance in Clients

Most practitioners would be shocked to hear it, but without realising it, many build resistance in clients – lowering their capacity to engage – through protocols and habits which communicate something very different to the client than what the practitioner is asking or intends to convey (Rosengren, 2009). In this article, we explore five ways in which practitioners may inadvertently build resistance in clients.

The assessment trap

Therapists are trained to get a history from the client straight away. Most agencies and institutions have specific assessments they need the practitioner to complete during the first session. The resultant question-and-answer hour may not be representative of the types of sessions which will follow, but the client does not know that. What s/he experiences is the clinician taking the lead, asking all the questions, and expecting him/her to give short answers which get the assessment form filled in, rather than the elaborated responses (born of more open questions) which are consistent with a client-centred – and thus less resistance-building – style of therapy.

Of course, if there is any possibility that the client is suicidal or there is any imminent emergency, the clinician needs to have a complete enough picture to ensure the proper care and safety of the client. But the form-filling protocols of the typical assessment session steer the client into a passive, one-down role. Think about it: do you as a practitioner really need to know everything about the client before you can even have a conversation? When closed (assessment) questions come thick and fast, the client has no choice but to pull back, defending him/herself and building resistance. This assessment trap leads into another.

The expert trap

Once the client has been squeezed into a passive role, it is only a tiny baby step, process-wise, from there to the clinician becoming the “expert”. The short-answer questions, fired one after the other, communicate “I’m in control here”. When someone takes over a process (as the acknowledged professional), asking all the questions and writing down the answers, most clients (logically!) expect to be told in due course what the solution is, what they need to do (Miller & Rollnick, 2013).

That’s a fair enough expectation for someone who presents with, say, a sprained arm, sore throat, or cut finger; Western general practitioner systems are predicated on the notion of “information in, answer out” and the patient expects at the end of the questions to be given a prescription, a sling, or a plaster – or at least instructions on how to treat the problem. Personal change, however, is not amenable to passively being “done to” and such role-taking as expert-patient is not expected to achieve real conversation about change, let alone change itself.

Premature focus trap

Let’s face it: as mental health professionals, we do have expertise. In fact, when clients come in and start talking about their problems, we often can see beneath the presenting issues to those that are inevitably at the core of the problem. But it is a swift ride to power struggles, discord, and disengagement if we prematurely attempt to get clients to focus on concerns we may hold for them while ignoring their “take” on the problem. Rather, we must engage with clients from their starting point. Our concerns are probably related to how they see the problem and, as they engage and disclose, the connection is likely to become relevant to them as well (Westra, 2012; Rosengren, 2009; Miller & Rollnick, 2013).

An example of avoiding this trap occurred in a Northern Territory clinic. The client presented with generalised anxiety disorder and was particularly anxious over the potential removal of her daughter from her care. The therapist, an alcohol and drug specialist, wanted to address the question of the woman’s substance abuse, but restrained herself, focusing with the client on the custody question. As a trusting therapeutic alliance grew, the woman gradually ventured the reason for the daughter’s imminent removal from her care: the drinking. Having been listened to respectfully and made a partner in the problem-solving process, the woman came on board with how she might change her drinking habits in order to keep custody of her daughter. Change talk was elicited, and gradually a plan was formulated by the therapist and the woman together. In this case, the therapist also avoided the following trap.

The labelling trap

One strand of premature focus is when the practitioner “needs” to name the “diagnosis” to the client, thus labelling him or her. It is hard enough for many clients to front up for mental health help; they feel further stigmatised or “boxed in” by labels. Some writers claim that it is a way that the practitioner retains control; others contend that it is at least a judgmental communication (Miller & Rollnick, 2013). Either way, it builds resistance and moves the client toward disengagement.

Ultimately, if the client is a fully participating partner in the process and is moving toward changing that which is harming his/her life, the appropriate therapeutic conversation – one preserving client respect and autonomy – finds no need to resort to labels; the disharmony thereby engendered hinders progress (this does not mean that you need to discourage clients who self-label in recognition of what they are dealing with: e.g., “I really have a phobia about flying” or “I want to get rid of my PTSD”) (Westra, 2012).

Stuck on side issues: Blaming and chatting

Similarly to labelling, it is neither helpful nor necessary in most therapies to be concerned with affixing blame. Clients are sometimes quite active in trying to apportion it (to anyone else but themselves, or alternatively, taking too much responsibility for how things turned out). The engagement-promoting intervention here runs something like, “I can see why you hold your parents responsible for the high anxiety you feel most of the time, but this process is a no-fault one. It is about seeing what can help you to feel better, not ascribing blame for why you feel so anxious.”

Off-topic chatting, apart from a few exchanges to build rapport at the beginning of sessions, also does not help the client move toward engagement with the considered change. Rather, when the primary focus is on the client’s goals and concerns, he or she can move forward toward reducing or eliminating the anxiety or other problems (framework for traps adapted from Miller & Rollnick, 2013).



  • Miller, W.R. & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational interviewing: Helping people change, Third edition. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Rosengren, D.A. (2009). Building motivational interviewing skills: A practitioner workbook. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Westra, H.A. (2012). Motivational interviewing in the treatment of anxiety. New York: Guilford Press.