“I don’t want to be here. I’m not going to say anything. I don’t know. Why should I talk to you?” A court mandated client sits in your office, required to participate in therapy as part of their treatment plan. You feel on edge, frustrated at their lack of engagement, maybe even resentful of the mental and emotional blocks that prevent rapport and valuable change. For those of us who might feel this gap between clients and ourselves, we know it becomes that much more difficult to connect, to hold space, and to offer unconditional positive regard, the building blocks that support the most change in fostering a positive therapeutic relationship. Considering the client’s circumstance, trauma experience, strengths, and resiliency can all serve as possible gateways for change and connection. With these aspects in mind, you may just bridge the gap or begin to gently chip away at the wall of resistance in support of a client’s healing journey.
The client may come from a different background or hold different values, however, they still feel pain and suffering just as we can. Remember that crisis such as homelessness, financial instability and a lack support could prevent progress due to basic needs requiring attention first. Having realistic expectations of what a client can accomplish both short and long term can set them up for success in your work together. If their trauma revolves around trust or mistrust, being aware of how therapy and/or relationships have helped or hindered them in the past can put their current resistance in perspective. A few questions that you may find helpful at the first meeting to ask a client around this concept include:
- Have you had therapy before? What was it like?
- What did you like about therapy before? Dislike about it?
- How would I know if I’ve offended you in some way? How would your body, face, or voice change to let me know what something isn’t quite right?
- How could I help you feel comfortable enough to tell me if I’ve done or said something that prevents you from talking with me freely?
All of these questions encourage your client to have a voice in the therapeutic process and can demonstrate their level of self-awareness as well as self-advocacy in the room.
Understanding a mandated client’s need for trust as well as acknowledging the power of consistency and ‘showing up’ can all have significant impact on the experience of therapy for a mandated client. For many clients, having someone invested in them and honoring their needs for safety is noticeably different from the relationships they’ve experienced in the past. Even when you feel that you aren’t making significant progress on a treatment plan, holding space for a client and developing a healthy therapeutic relationship can be more significant than we realize. Similar to group therapy where we witness the group as a social microcosm or opportunity to explore interpersonal skills repeated in varying interactions outside of group, the therapeutic relationship can help us identify relationship strengths and challenges that are seen in other spheres of the client’s life for possible change and improvement. Remaining present with a client in their experience through supportive feedback, empathy, and empowerment can encourage the desired change in ways that feel safe.
Supporting safety by asking questions of client regarding their experience in your office can be very helpful, however being aware of your own assumptions, biases, and language can be equally important in working with mandated clients. Could your language choice be isolating rather than empowering? Are you approaching their needs from a strengths perspective, understanding that their behavior could reflect survival, a pattern of attempting to meet their own needs in any way possible?
Consider the following as possible gauges for yourself:
- Reading their entire case file and developing a plan based on that information versus speaking with them about what they want to work on.
- Seeing their choices as immoral behavior that requires fixing versus reframing behavior through the lens of survival and in response to trauma
- Using words that are possibly offensive to your client such as criminal, paranoid, or bipolar versus language reflecting their personal experience with legal charges, bipolar disorder, or caution with others in response to safety needs.
- Noticing your ability to interact and identify strengths of a client to maintain unconditional positive regard
Once you’ve explored your own presentation and values in the room with a mandated client to allow them to feel safe, you will continue to gauge what will support them in their process. For many clients, acknowledging they aren’t in therapy of their own free will can be the start of a conversation of what they’d like to get out of sessions in having to be in attendance. Asking questions like, “What would make this worth your while? What would you like to get out of this in having to be here?” can be supportive in normalizing their resistance and empowering them to be part of the process. If you receive a response of, “I don’t know,” don’t lose heart. Many clients need to witness your commitment to their process by being patient and present with them each week. Some clients will even test your limits to see if you can respond to them in ways that feel safe enough to encourage them to open up and trust. In considering all of the tips above, you will feel more prepared to meet resistance and offer an environment that feel supportive for clients to engage and grow.