Being able to successfully engage with clients in an authentic way is what separates a good therapist from a great one. Although it may be challenging, connecting with clients on a deep level is essential for achieving transformative results.
Research shows a link between client engagement and positive treatment outcomes. Engaged clients are more involved in their therapeutic journey, more motivated to put in the work, and more likely to see results quickly.
Navigating client engagement in therapy can be difficult in the beginning, but it’s a crucial skill to master, and your role in facilitating the connection is paramount. Learn more about how to engage clients in therapy here.
1. Break Down Barriers to Engagement
The path to providing successful therapy often encounters several common counselor challenges. Issues can vary, from practical matters, like limited time, to confidentiality concerns or emotional challenges, like fear of being judged or skepticism about the efficacy of therapy.
Strategies to overcome barriers:
Tackle resistance head-on: Acknowledge concerns and provide clear information about what clients can expect during their therapeutic journey. Reassure them that confidentiality is an essential and respected part of the process.
Adapt therapeutic interventions: Moving beyond rigid standard interventions can allow for significant strides. Individualizing treatment strategies based on where each client is on their mental health journey is the first step. For example, you might need to use supportive techniques when working with someone new to therapy. You can gradually shift towards more challenging methods once someone feels comfortable enough for deeper self-exploration.
Meet clients where they are: Clients enter therapy at different stages of readiness — recognizing this fact is crucial to building trust and enhancing your therapeutic relationship.
“We all know that starting therapy can be overwhelming and hard for clients. I have found the basic adage of “start where the client is at” serves me well every time I encounter challenges. Being able to actively listen and engage where the client is with a non-judgemental stance and an openness to understand their perspective often begins the process of them becoming more open to the process of therapy.”
– Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH
2. Build Rapport and Establish Trust
Maintaining high levels of trust goes beyond merely facilitating a conversation. It directly impacts how involved clients will be during treatment.
Strategies for building rapport:
Listen to more than just their words: Try to understand verbal cues and interpret body language to ensure clients feel heard during each therapy session.
Empathize: Showing empathy will play a significant role in building rapport. Share a genuine interest in learning more about a client’s life experiences or feelings to open the process to more meaningful conversations.
Cultivate trust within sessions: Earning trust starts with creating safe spaces where clients can express themselves freely and confidently.
Be consistent: By remaining consistent throughout all interactions (inside and outside of sessions), you show reliability that can further strengthen trust.
3. Have the Client Be Part of Goal-Setting
Engaging clients in therapy relies on goal-setting as its backbone. Invite clients to participate in the process to boost engagement and fuel motivation. A collaborative approach to goal setting fosters autonomy and empowerment — when clients actively define their goals, they’re more likely to invest wholeheartedly in the therapeutic process.
Strategies for successful goal setting:
Navigate the process together: Navigate the goal-setting journey effectively by encouraging clients to use their voices. This helps build trust by offering them a safe space where they’re more likely to honestly express what they want from therapy.
Use the SMART technique: The Specific Measurable Achievable Relevant Time-bound (SMART) technique can be very effective in helping clients set goals. SMART goals offer clear objectives and give both parties a solid idea of what progress will look like throughout the therapeutic alliance.
“I have found that therapy works best when it is a collaborative process and this includes setting goals with the client. While it can be overwhelming at first and goals often change over time, helping a client figure out what they want to work on in therapy is a great way to start the process of collaboration right from the start. Engaging your client from the beginning of this process lets them know that you are open to feedback and respect their input.”
– Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH
4. Individualize Their Treatment Plan
The crux of client engagement in therapy often hinges on how well a treatment plan resonates with a client’s unique needs and preferences. Everyone brings a distinct background, talents, and struggles to therapy. Adopting a person-centered approach that respects and honors these differences is imperative.
Strategies for personalizing care:
Use a person-centered approach: A person-centered therapy approach emphasizes understanding clients as individuals rather than using a one-size-fits-all method. This can increase engagement by making people feel seen and understood. Customized treatment might involve adjusting therapeutic techniques or incorporating elements that resonate with the client. For example, someone who enjoys music might benefit from integrating music therapy into their sessions.
Bridge client preferences with therapeutic interventions: Use open dialogue about goals, values, fears, and hopes to understand what matters most to each client. Clients should be encouraged to express what they find helpful during sessions. Some may prefer more structured activities, while others might thrive in free-form discussions.
Leverage client strengths: A critical aspect of creating personalized treatment plans involves recognizing and leveraging clients’ strengths throughout their therapeutic journey.
5. Ask for Feedback
The therapeutic process is a dynamic interaction. It’s not just about you delivering wisdom. It requires an active exchange of feedback that’s only possible by engaging clients in therapy sessions. If you want to know how to increase engagement, feedback is crucial.
Strategies for getting and using feedback:
Use open dialogue: Asking questions like “How are you feeling about today’s session?” or “What could we change for our next meeting?” promotes honest communication without directing responses. This approach requires sensitivity, as you must learn to navigate positive and negative comments. Try to look at criticism as an opportunity to refine the therapeutic process — don’t let it trigger defensiveness.
Let feedback guide future sessions: When possible, show your respect for a client’s point of view by using their suggestions in future sessions. You might modify treatment strategies or revise current behavior based on shared insights during feedback discussions.
Promote engagement through active listening: Active listening is essential when seeking feedback. It reinforces mutual respect while garnering valuable information about therapy’s effectiveness (or lack thereof).
“Taking the opportunity to check in with your clients throughout the course of therapy, asking how they think therapy is going, what is working and what might not be working for them allows for ongoing collaboration. At the same time it deepens the relationship between the client and therapist as it highlights the importance of trust and respect in the relationship.”
– Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH
6. Empower & Motivate Them
Therapy empowers clients to take an active role in their journey. However, withdrawn clients are some of the most common types of difficult clients in therapy. Use evidence-based techniques, like motivational interviewing, to assign clients an active role in their journey and increase engagement.
Strategies to empower and motivate clients:
Motivational interviewing: Motivational interviewing is a client-centered approach that can boost motivation by helping clients explore and resolve their ambivalence about change. The approach hinges on the idea that a positive outcome is more likely when you tap into internal encouragement rather than force external pressure.
Evidence-based techniques: Several evidence-based techniques are also proven effective at enhancing engagement in therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and acceptance commitment therapy (ACT). These approaches involve educating clients on how thoughts influence feelings and behaviors while providing practical skills for managing symptoms or challenging situations.
Additional tips to help you empower clients include:
Teaching coping mechanisms
Not focusing solely on deficits
7. Utilize Creative Therapeutic Approaches
Creative therapeutic approaches can be effective if you’re looking for ideas on how to engage a client in therapy. Creative therapy methods offer clients a different avenue for self-expression as they explore their feelings.
Creative therapy approaches to try:
Expressive therapies: Expressive therapies — like music or drama therapy — help clients creatively express emotions that might be difficult to articulate verbally.
Art therapy: Art therapy can be another powerful tool in addition to traditional talk therapies. Solution-focused therapy helps clients embrace change through verbal discussions, but art therapy uses visual arts as the primary mode of communication.
Experiential activities: Beyond the more conventional forms of treatment lies experiential activities like role-playing exercises or mindfulness practices that might engage even those who initially resist opening up during sessions.
8. Prepare for Sessions with Questions & Structure
In the therapeutic process, preparation is critical. As a therapist, you can engage clients more effectively when your sessions are structured and questions thoughtfully prepared.
Strategies to help you prepare for sessions:
Formulate relevant questions in advance: Ask meaningful and open-ended questions that encourage detailed responses rather than simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. For instance, instead of asking “Did you feel anxious?” it might be more effective to ask, “Can you describe your anxiety?”
Use reflective questioning techniques: Reflective questioning involves rephrasing or summarizing what a client shares. The technique confirms that you understand them correctly and it encourages further discussion. Remember: the goal here isn’t an interrogation; it’s a genuine curiosity about current behavior.
Structure sessions effectively: A well-structured therapy session provides direction while allowing flexibility based on individual needs. Typically, this might begin with checking in on a client’s feelings before discussing progress since their last appointment. Then you can focus on specific issues to address during the current session.
Achieve Better Client Outcomes with Talkspace
Platforms like Talkspace have significantly reshaped the digital landscape of mental health treatment. As a Talkspace provider, you can more easily engage with clients and motivate them to work toward their therapeutic goals and achieve successful outcomes.
Talkspace’s online platform breaks down geographical, financial, and access-to-care barriers that often hinder people from seeking help or engaging in therapy. This increased accessibility can significantly enhance engagement by making therapy available at the client’s convenience.
If you’re ready to learn how to engage clients in therapy in ways that enhance successful outcomes, consider becoming a Talkspace provider— our innovative platform is designed specifically for online therapy delivery and offers many benefits, from unparalleled support to competitive pay. Join the Talkspace network today.
Holdsworth E, Bowen E, Brown S, Howat D. Client engagement in psychotherapeutic treatment and associations with client characteristics, therapist characteristics, and treatment factors. Clinical Psychology Review. 2014;34(5):428-450. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2014.06.004. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272735814000968. Accessed July 25, 2023.
1. Policy statement on evidence-based practice in psychology. American Psychological Association. Accessed July 25, 2023. https://www.apa.org/practice/guidelines/evidence-based-statement.
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