Client Disengagement

Client DisengagementI’ve been working with a client for about six months, and we’ve agreed on a treatment plan. However, he doesn’t seem very engaged in working toward his goals. My supervisor suggested I bring this up with him, so I asked if he has changed his priorities and he said no. How can I help him make progress when he isn’t motivated?

This is a difficult situation, and it sounds like you haven’t yet identified the reason for your client’s lack of engagement with the treatment plan. In addition to a change in priorities, this type of withdrawal could be due to his reluctance or inability to verbalize his preferences or due to pressure from someone in his life about the purpose and outcome of the therapy. Your client told you his priorities haven’t changed, but you still don’t know whether that or another factor may be explain your sense that he isn’t working collaboratively with you. I’ll make a few suggestions of ways you might work with yourself and your client to change the pattern or your interpretation and response to it.

The first step I would recommend is to identify and explore your countertransference response. You say he seems disengaged, which suggests that there is a disruption in your experience of the therapeutic relationship. Give thought to his behavior and your emotional response without making an interpretation of what it means. Also, reflect on whether your client’s behavior has changed over the six months you have worked together. It is possible that there is a mismatch between you and your client in interpersonal pace, rhythm, and emotional expression. If that is the case, the meaning you are assigning to his behavior, i.e., that he isn’t engaged in working on goals, may not be accurate. In addition, if you notice a similarity in your emotional response to this client and to other situations in your personal life, you may need to become more flexible in attuning to your client’s preferred style and not assigning the same interpretation to his behavior as you have made in other relationships. Talk with your supervisor about your countertransference and your observations of your client’s behavior to help you get clearer about why you have come to the conclusion that he isn’t motivated.

After you have checked your countertransference responses, consider bringing up the issue of your client’s engagement as a process comment. Be sure you are feeling open and nonjudgmental when you initiate this discussion. Examples of ways to bring up the issue would be “I’ve noticed that our discussions of your treatment goals haven’t been very fruitful and wonder if you have any thoughts about that” or “I’m wondering how the therapy is feeling for you and whether we’re addressing the things that are most important to you” or “I’d like to check in with you about how we’re working together to make sure I’m helping you in the ways you want and need.”

Last, after you have initiated this process level discussion, respond with curiosity and interest to the client’s comments. It is especially helpful to use reflective listening, empathy, and clarification. Even if your client responds by saying “everything is fine,” you can respond with “so you feel we’re working on the things that are important to you?” to affirm the client’s statement and encourage him to elaborate. If he gives any indication of ambivalence or dissatisfaction, you can follow up on that using reflective exploration which may lead to greater understanding and collaboration between you. If he doesn’t directly express any discontent, you can still express your openness to hearing his negative feelings by making a normalizing statement. An example is “people often find that they have a mixture of feelings about therapy, so if that does happen for you I hope we can talk about it.”

I hope this discussion has been useful to you in understanding client disengagement. Please email me with questions, comments, and suggestions for future blog topics.