Counseling Today, Cover Stories

Building trust with reluctant clients

By Bethany Bray June 22, 2022

The Washington Post’s “Dear Carolyn” advice column recently fielded a question from a person who was unsure if they were ready to seek counseling to cope with a strained relationship with a parent. Although the person was aware that counseling could be helpful in this particular situation, they were still reluctant to seek services. “I can’t bear the thought of sharing any sort of emotions or history with a complete stranger, especially when I hear people have to reshare as they try two or several counselors to find the right one,” they wrote.

In her response to this letter, advice columnist Carolyn Hax advocated for the person to try counseling and addressed their hesitancy by saying, “The ‘total stranger’ is actually the point. … That extra, disinterested, trained, and informed set of eyes can help any of us see things we’re too close to see.”

The author of this letter is hardly alone in their hesitance. Data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness indicates that roughly one in five American adults experienced mental illness in 2020, yet less than half received treatment.

And part of this reluctance may stem from the fact that counseling does involves being vulnerable to a stranger — albeit a professional stranger — and working through emotions, trauma and issues that can be painful, sad or fear-provoking. When combined with feelings of shame, stigma or bad memories of a past therapy experience, it’s no wonder that clients are often nervous, fearful or hesitant to start counseling.

Counselors understand the importance of the therapeutic relationship. But when a client is hesitant or reluctant, practitioners need to make trust and relationship building the central focus of counseling work, along with a little extra patience and unconditional positive regard.

An extra dose of validation

Bri-Ann Richter-Abitol, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) in New York and a licensed clinical mental health counselor and supervisor in North Carolina, has worked with clients who were so apprehensive about trying counseling that they were visibly shaking in their first few sessions.

Richter-Abitol owns a private practice in Wake Forest, North Carolina, that specializes in counseling for anxiety disorders. She and her staff offer individual and group counseling with a focus on creating a welcoming, nonintimidating environment.

When a client’s body language indicates that they’re nervous or hesitant as they begin counseling, Richter-Abitol uses it as an opportunity to acknowledge their concern and validate that what they’re doing is hard. Her focus becomes normalizing the therapy process, rather than jumping into any kind of assessment or intake regimen.

“This [hesitancy] is extremely common, even for clients who have been in counseling before. … If I notice that a client is really anxious, I use immediacy and point out that it is scary to be here, and I applaud them for coming in,” says Richter-Abitol, an American Counseling Association member.

Clients who are hesitant to try counseling need transparency, patience and an extra dose of validation from their counselor, agrees Megan Craig, an LMHC who counsels clients at a community mental health agency in the Boston area. She often emphasizes to clients that they’re not doing something “wrong” if they are having trouble opening up or aren’t immediately comfortable in therapy. Applauding a client’s bravery to walk through the door also creates an opportunity to ask them what motivated them to make that first appointment — and, in turn, helps the counselor learn more about the client, Craig adds.

Validation played a key part in fostering connection with a female client Craig once worked with who kept being referred to different clinicians within Craig’s agency because of staff turnover.

By the time she was put on Craig’s caseload, the client was “exhausted” and fearful of losing yet another practitioner. So, she had spotty attendance and would often cancel appointments.

“She felt like she hardly wanted to be there [in counseling sessions]. She had told her story so many times, only for her clinician to leave. She kept having to start over from scratch and be vulnerable with a new person,” Craig recalls.

Craig was honest with the client and broached the subject directly, validating that her exhaustion was understandable and warranted.

Craig also realized she needed to slow the pace of therapy with this client. Their early counseling sessions focused on lighter topics, such as work stress. It was one year into counseling before the client was comfortable enough to begin talking about heavier topics, including her trauma history.

The client’s attendance eventually improved but not until Craig spent months building a relationship with her.

“At first, I second-guessed myself and wondered if this [early work] was ‘therapeutic enough.’ But that’s what she needed. That was what was therapeutic for her,” Craig says. “She needed to establish the trust that I wasn’t going to leave and would stay with her. Just me showing up [to counseling sessions] is exactly what this client needed.” 

Fear of judgment

Counselors are no strangers to the importance of the therapeutic relationship, and decades of research show how central and essential it is to client engagement and growth, says Michael Tursi, an LMHC in New York. Counselors, however, must make relationship building an utmost priority for clients who are hesitant. They have an opportunity to display nonjudgment every time they respond and interact with a client, he notes.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘the therapeutic relationship is essential,’ but there are some clients who really might not be willing to engage at all until they see certain things, especially nonjudgment, in their counselor,” he says. “When counselors meet with clients, right from the beginning, they have an opportunity to display nonjudgment.” 

Tursi, an assistant professor in the mental health counseling program at Pace University’s Pleasantville, New York campus, has done research on client experiential avoidance (i.e., when a person is resistant to experiencing strong or adverse sensations, emotions or thoughts) and engagement in counseling. For his doctoral dissertation, Tursi interviewed a cohort of clients in counseling who self-identified as experiencing this phenomenon, and he, along with two other colleagues, published the findings in a 2021 Journal of Counseling & Development article.

Tursi measured his study participants’ level of avoidance by having them complete the Multidimensional Experiential Avoidance Questionnaire developed by psychologist Wakiza Gámez and colleagues.

According to Tursi, one data point in his research quickly became very clear: Each and every one of the participants talked about fear of judgment from their counselor. The study participants acknowledged that they became more engaged in counseling once they established that their counselor was trustworthy and nonjudgmental.

In fact, the participants viewed counseling as a potentially harmful or threatening relationship until their counselor had fostered a trusting relationship with them and eased their hesitancy, Tursi adds.

Some participants talked about “testing” their counselor by intentionally saying something to elicit a response to gauge how trustworthy the counselor was. Even if a client does not do something like this intentionally, Tursi notes, they are very aware of how a counselor is responding to them.

“Nonjudgment is central to working with any client. But these clients might need a counselor who is quite in tune with [the fact that the] client is concerned about judgment and be patient with that,” says Tursi, an ACA member.

A key aspect of creating an atmosphere of nonjudgment is for counselors to be aware of a client’s comfort level, he says. This includes keeping an eye out for indicators that a client is anxious, such as body language, and checking in regularly with the client to talk about how they feel things are going.

A client should never feel pestered or pushed into talking about issues; they should come to the decision to disclose on their own, Tursi emphasizes. Counselors need to temper the expectations of what they think or expect a client will need or be willing to do. 

“Attending to where your clients are is important. We shouldn’t go into therapy and assume clients are going to disclose right away rather than do the therapeutic work that we think they need to do,” he explains. “Counselors should make sure they’re focusing on providing conditions for these clients to engage. … The client is never going to get there [make progress], in any kind of meaningful way, unless they’re engaging in sessions.”

Tursi hopes his research spreads awareness among counselors that experiential avoidance is very common and that some clients may come into counseling believing — for a variety of reasons — that it could be a relationship that is potentially harmful. Tursi draws on the work of Barry Farber, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, when he emphasizes that it’s easy to have unconditional positive regard for clients who come in ready to trust and work with their counselor. But it’s equally important to provide that regard for clients who are hesitant, although it may be more difficult. Patience should be a counselor’s watchword, Tursi adds.

“As counselors, we have to be aware of situations in which we have difficulty providing positive regard and continue professional development to improve our abilities to provide nonjudgmental acceptance at times that it is difficult,” Tursi says.

Check yourself 

As a practitioner who specializes in counseling clients with anxiety, Richter-Abitol finds that rapport building with clients who are hesitant must involve self-awareness on the part of the clinician. This includes keeping her own wants, expectations and assumptions about work with clients in check, she says, and asking for client input on the pace and direction of their treatment.

Richter-Abitol is transparent with her clients: She lets them know that they are “in control” of what they want to talk about in sessions and emphasizes that she won’t “make” them talk about anything they’re not ready to.

“You have to meet the client where they’re at and let them set the agenda. I have had clients who have taken months to build rapport, and if you [the counselor] are not patient, you may never get to that point,” Richter-Abitol says. “You have to constantly check yourself outside of sessions and tell yourself that even small successes contribute toward long-term goals. Small things add up.”

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Richter-Abitol, like Tursi, argues that the therapeutic relationship must take priority with these clients, rather than diving into a treatment plan based on their diagnosis or what the practitioner thinks they need. Counselors should get creative to find ways to bond with the client prior to moving into heavier work, she suggests. For young clients, this might be therapeutic games or activities; for adults, it might be a discussion of lighter topics that help paint a picture of who they are, including things that they like, dislike and what motivates them.

“Those conversations can lead to deeper ones,” she says. “It’s not helpful to be too rigid. You can have things that you’d like the client to work on, but ultimately it has to be up to them. Flexibility is important.”

Richter-Abitol has found that clients feel more empowered when she lets them take the reins in this way. And many begin to open up naturally when they don’t feel pressured to do so.

This approach requires counselors not only to be in touch with and sensitive to their client’s needs and level of readiness in counseling but also to check their own inclination to take charge when a client is slow to make progress. It’s all too easy to assume that a client who isn’t making progress — or not progressing in a way the counselor might want or expect — isn’t benefiting from counseling, Richter-Abitol notes.

Instead, she advises practitioners to take a step back and consider the client’s full context, including the barriers and challenges that are making it difficult for them to engage with a counselor.

“Their fear or discomfort can come off as resistance or presenting a vibe that ‘I don’t want to be here.’ … They just don’t know how to feel about this space yet, and you need to give them time to figure that out,” Richter-Abitol says. “Don’t make the assumption that someone who is uncomfortable isn’t gaining anything from the experience. It might not be that they don’t want to be there but they just don’t know how to be there yet.”

Have honest conversations 

If patience is the first thing that clients who are hesitant or slow to engage in counseling need from a practitioner, transparency is the second. For Craig, this comes in the form of direct questions to the client to gauge their comfort level and an honest invitation to let her know when things aren’t working.

If a client appears uncomfortable or is hesitant to engage in counseling, Craig will address it directly, saying, “Here is what I’m picking up on. Tell me if I’m right or wrong.” She emphasizes to clients that she cares for their well-being and genuinely wants to hear how they’re feeling — and that they have a choice and a say in the counseling process.

Sometimes what counselors view as resistant behavior in clients can be caused by the use of methods or techniques that aren’t a good fit for that individual, Craig says, or it can be that the practitioner themselves is not the right fit. Because clients may not bring up problems to a counselor on their own, she makes a point to broach the topic with honesty, explaining that no therapist is going to be the best match for everyone who walks through their door.

“If someone is taking the huge step to start counseling, I want them to benefit from it as much as possible. I’m honest and tell them that they’ll never make progress if we are not a good fit,” says Craig. “People are not ready for different reasons, and that’s why I like to have such open conversations. … I might not be able to give them everything they need, but I certainly want to talk about it and I want to try.”

She not only checks in regularly with clients throughout therapy but also makes time for a deeper conversation about what is and isn’t going well once a year (on their anniversary as her client). 

During these check-ins, she prompts clients with questions such as:

  • How do you feel about our work together?
  • Do you respond well to me taking the lead in counseling, or do you prefer to take the lead?
  • What has been helpful during our work together?
  • What do you need more of? And less of?
  • What did you expect from therapy and how has this not met your expectations?
  • What’s working and what’s not?

Not only do these conversations provide Craig with valuable feedback, but they also help set an example for the client to advocate for their own needs outside of counseling, she notes. Learning to be able to communicate their needs and expectations is a big — and important — milestone for many clients.

Craig recommends clinicians ask clients directly about how things are going in counseling rather than fall into an easy pattern of making assumptions about individuals who are avoidant or hesitant to engage. Honest feedback from a client is a good thing, Craig stresses, and not something that a counselor should take personally.

Overcoming cultural barriers

Counselors also need to take a proactive approach when clients are hesitant because of challenges and barriers related to their cultural background, says Camila Pulgar, a licensed clinical mental health counselor associate who is a research faculty member at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Building trust and forging connection with clients who are from marginalized cultures require a counselor not only to be comfortable broaching the subject of culture (and cultural differences) in client sessions in an ethical and compassionate way, Pulgar says, but also to be fully aware of and sensitive to the many barriers that keep them from accessing counseling or being fully comfortable in the setting. 

A native of Chile, Pulgar specializes in the mental health needs of Latinx clients, including suicide prevention. She does clinical work once a week in her faculty position at the medical center, and she is the only bilingual (Spanish/English) provider on her team. Being the only bilingual counselor is not unusual for Pulgar; in fact, this has been the case for most of her professional career, she says. The mental health care system in this country is simply not built to support the needs of clients whose first language is not English.

Language is only one of many barriers that can deter clients from minority cultures from seeking or becoming fully engaged in counseling, Pulgar points out. Individuals may face logistical challenges such as trouble accessing transportation to appointments, finding child care or affording the cost of sessions. They may also be fearful or have adverse feelings about counseling because of stigma, past harm or skepticism about therapy within their culture or family group.

“If people make it to my office, they’re usually hesitant to share their mental health journey with their family members because of stigma. I often hear ‘I don’t want anyone else to know I’m here’,” says Pulgar, who also sees a small caseload of clients at her private practice in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “When we talk about their supports and who they can reach out to in times of crisis, they often don’t list anyone [in their family] because they don’t want their family to know they’re struggling.”

Shivonne Odom, a certified perinatal mental health provider whose private practice is the only practice in the Washington, D.C., area that specializes in perinatal mental health care and is owned by an African American therapist, says this is also common among her clients, the majority of whom are African American.

She’s had clients whose families reacted very negatively when they found out the client was attending therapy, and other clients have chosen not to disclose the fact that they were seeking counseling to their families and, in some cases, even their spouse.

Hesitancy is very common among Odom’s clients; she recently had a client tell her that she needed to take an hour-long walk to calm her nerves before logging in for her first counseling session.

There is an extra layer of stigma for minority clients who are seeking perinatal mental health care because pregnancy and childbirth are often assumed to be a joyful and happy time — not one of despair. All of these challenges add up and severely affect clients’ help-seeking behaviors, says Odom, a licensed professional counselor in Washington, D.C., and a licensed clinical professional counselor in Maryland.

Pulgar notes that conversations around challenges in minority mental health care often place the blame on the stigma that many cultures have regarding counseling. In reality, minority populations face many barriers when seeking treatment, and that should be an equally, if not more, important part of the discussion.

This issue is compounded by the fact that most of the evidence-based treatment methods that students are taught in graduate counseling programs were created by and tested within members of the majority population. So, it makes sense that many of counselor’s go-to methods may not be a good fit for some minority clients, says Pulgar, an ACA member.

Clients can also become discouraged if they are referred to counseling by a medical provider and none of the counselors on the referral list look like the client, Odom adds. Because of this, she goes out of her way to accept many different types of insurances and often consults and works with multidisciplinary professionals in related fields, such as lactation consultants, to advocate for her clients and ensure that other providers know of her services.

Counselors should also be aware that these clients are often unfamiliar with the process of counseling. A first step toward forging a therapeutic connection can be to explain what therapy is (and isn’t) and why it’s helpful, along with the concepts of privileged information and confidentiality, Odom says.

Pulgar and Odom emphasize that one way to reduce these clients’ stress and barriers to treatment is for counselors to become knowledgeable of culturally connected resources in their area, such as nonprofit organizations and support groups and services.

Free support groups can be very helpful to validate a client’s feelings and experience in a way that individual counseling can’t, Odom says. And if there isn’t a group that matches your clients’ culture and identity (e.g., single mothers by choice), she suggests that counselors consider seeking training to start and lead one.

It’s equally as important for counselors to forge a connection with the marginalized community in their area as it is to build a strong therapeutic relationship with individual clients, Pulgar says. She suggests that practitioners start by becoming involved with organizations that serve the local marginalized community and participate in events such as health fairs.

“Get out of the four walls of the office,” Pulgar stresses. “Marginalized communities are so collective, and community is an important part of life.”

Small changes, big impact 

Counselors have an opportunity to build trust with a client with every interaction. And sometimes, seemingly “small” things that are outside of the core work of counseling can make a big difference to a client. Here are just a few small steps clinicians can take that will make a big impact on clients. 

Explain the process of counseling and why it’s helpful. Don’t assume that clients know what therapy is or what it entails, Tursi advises. “If they’ve never been to counseling previously, the idea of connecting with feelings might be very foreign to them,” he says. “They might start counseling thinking that the counselor can just make these [difficult] feelings go away. When instead, counseling [works to] change their relationship with their feelings — and a practitioner may need to explain that.”

Remember that a breakthrough does not mean clients are completely comfortable in counseling. A counselor whose client makes a significant gain toward trusting their practitioner in one session may feel that they’ve built their relationship enough to move on and address other issues. However, the only way to truly build trust is to have patience and show a client, over time, that you are trustworthy, Craig says. This is especially true for clients whose trust has been broken by others in their life, including health care providers. “Remember that even if they open up about their fears, it doesn’t mean they’ll be less fearful at the next session,” she adds. “It’s about patience and giving them that chance to warm up.”

Welcome clients before they even sit down. Forging trust with hesitant clients takes “more than what you are doing in the [counseling] room, it’s the whole experience,” Richter-Abitol says. “And we want to make people feel as welcomed as possible. … I know what it takes to walk through that door, and how hard it can be.”

She has taken client comfort into consideration in every aspect of her practice, from choosing cozy décor for the waiting room to a casual staff dress code. She built her website to be particularly user-friendly and extend a welcoming vibe before clients even set foot in the door. For example, she provides a detailed biography of all members of the clinical team, including photos of the practitioners, adjectives that describe them (e.g., bubbly, enthusiastic, loyal, creative, motivated) and a description of what a client can expect when working with them. 

“We try and dial down the clinical and dial up the parts of our personality” on the website to make potential clients feel comfortable, Richter-Abitol explains. “With the anxiety population, fear of the unknown is a big issue, so seeing the office and the pictures [online] helps fills in that space [and] helps people form connections before even coming in.”

Pronounce their name correctly. And if counselors are not sure how to pronounce the client’s name, they should ask and remember it, Pulgar says. This is a seemingly small thing that can be overlooked by practitioners, she notes, but it lets the client know that a counselor values their identity.

Don’t assume they’re resistant. Clients who are opposed to treatment and those who are hesitant or slow to engage in counseling can exhibit some of the same behaviors, such as canceling appointments frequently, answering a counselor’s questions with one-word answers or avoiding talking about heavier topics. However, counselors have an opportunity to build trust and explore the reasons why a client appears reluctant, rather than labeling them as resistant.

“We have been taught [in counselor trainings and graduate programs] that it’s a normal way to view clients. It’s really discouraging to know that [the word ‘resistant’] is even part of the dialogue,” Craig says. “Just because your perception as a clinician is that a person is not trying doesn’t mean that they’re not trying. They might not be doing the homework you assign, but they’re showing up every week. And that may be all that they can do right now. That is trying for them. Be sensitive to what they need to make progress.”

Do no harm and seek training. An important aspect of building trust with hesitant clients is ensuring that a practitioner is providing ethical, appropriate and competent care to keep from exacerbating their hesitancy or repeating any bad experiences they might have had previously in therapy. This includes seeking training, consultation or supervision when a counselor has a client who comes from a culture or is dealing with a challenge that the counselor is not familiar with.

In the case of perinatal clients, clinicians who are not trained in the needs and nuances of work with this population risk providing inaccurate — or even harmful — care, Odom says. Some of the symptoms that can be common in perinatal clients, such as intrusive thoughts about harming their baby, can easily be misinterpreted, she explains.

“We [counselors] have an ethical duty to only practice in areas in which we are trained, and if we’re not, we have an ethical obligation to reach out to providers who are and consult with them,” Odom says. “Don’t be afraid to take a training on perinatal [mental health]. I have seen way too many clinicians treating these clients [inappropriately] and it leads to clients having to unjustly interface with systems that will do harm.”

Leave the door open for them to return. Clients who are hesitant about counseling are more likely to drop off a practitioner’s caseload. Counselors should take measures to focus on retention with this client population, but they should also understand that when the client stops counseling, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t beneficial. Sometimes people simply have so much going on that life “gets in the way” and they can’t come to regular sessions, Pulgar points out.

Practitioners should emphasize to these clients that they’re always welcome to return to counseling whenever they’re ready. Instead of placing blame and asking the client not to return after missing multiple sessions, a counselor can instead say, “I understand this may not be the best time to start counseling in your life, but please do reach out when it is. I am here for you, please keep my number,” Pulgar says.

“The truth is, not everyone is ready for counseling when it comes time for the appointment, even if they made the phone call [to schedule]. They may not be ready to engage yet in the process of what counseling demands,” Pulgar says. “Stay calm and don’t overthink ‘What am I doing wrong?’ or ‘What more can I do?’ Take a couple of deep breaths and think about ways that the door stays open. … If clients get a good sense of counseling just with that interaction with you, maybe in a year or five years, they will come back. That interaction, although brief, can give them a positive feeling about counseling.”

 

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Reasons why 

Many different factors and barriers deter people from seeking counseling or feeling comfortable in sessions. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but some common client fears and concerns include:

  • The client (or someone they know) has had a bad, hurtful or unhelpful experience previously with a mental health or medical practitioner.
  • They come from a culture where counseling is not widely accepted or a culture that has been historically maligned or harmed by mental health professions.
  • They are struggling with an issue that involves feelings of shame. 
  • They are afraid to confront the issue they are struggling with; this can include hesitancy to relive trauma as they process it or fear of showing vulnerability or imperfection.
  • They fear being given a diagnosis and/or being misdiagnosed.
  • They worry the counselors will judge them.
  • They fear meeting and opening up to a person they don’t know. 
  • They experience overwhelming negative or catastrophizing thoughts (e.g., “Counseling is not going to work”).
  • They face logistical challenges (lack of insurance or inability to pay, trouble finding child care or transportation, etc.).
  • They worry that others (family, peers, etc.) will find out they are attending counseling.
  • They do not have a choice in attending counseling (e.g., a person who is mandated to complete therapy, often as the outcome of a court case).
  • They are hesitant or unable to connect with a practitioner who doesn’t come from the same background or experience as them (e.g., a Latinx or LGBTQ counselor, one who has served in the military, one who understands miscarriage and infertility).

This information came from interviews with the following counselors: Megan Craig, Shivonne Odom, Camila Pulgar, Bri-Ann Richter-Abitol and Michael Tursi.

 

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

2 Comments

  1. Joe Mardis

    As an African American in private clinical practice for more than 35 years, I have seen my share of Caucasian clients who refused service after learning of my race. Yet, I see no mention of this race problem, Black African Americans specifically, that White Americans have when seeking assistance.

    Reply

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