The Importance of Engagement

When we refer to the engagement process we are talking about the process in which clients become active and involved in their treatment process. A lot of us may feel that the engagement process only occurs at the beginning of the therapeutic relationship. This may be because we spend a lot of time in those initial sessions trying to help the client get acquainted and feel comfortable with attending therapy and work on developing goals. However, engagement can be seen as an ongoing process because you will always need to help keep your client “engaged” while they remain in therapy. This blog will focus on ways in which you can help keep your client engaged throughout the counseling process.

Who are our clients?

As we begin discussing engagement, it is also important to make the distinction between voluntary versus involuntary clients. Voluntary clients come to therapy on their own free will, and can also be classified as “customers” (refer to the blog discussing visitors, complainants, customers). They tend to be our ideal clients because they know what issues they would like to work on and may often have their goals already thought of when they come for that first session.

On the other hand, involuntary clients, are those who are mandated or feel pressure to attend therapy by an outside force, whether that force be the legal system, work, school, or friends or family. Involuntary clients are often classified as “visitors” or “complainants.” They may not feel that they have a problem, or that the problem does not lie with them. They often appear to be resistant make the engagement process much more complicated.

Specialized Family Therapy works with involuntary clients. All the clients have been court mandated to attend therapy. However, there may be some cases in which one parent requested to attend therapy due to not being able to resolve conflicts with their co-parent.

Beginning to engage

When beginning to engage with the clients you want to make sure you connect the client and you want to do this on their terms. I have found it is easier to begin this by talking about something that does not necessarily relate to the counseling session. For instance, I have had clients come in and talk about how nice the weather is and how they can’t wait to get home and do something outside. I use that as my opportunity to begin talking about things they like to do outside. I have noticed it makes them feel much more at ease and alleviates any initial fear they have coming into the office.

After a few moments, I then try to redirect the session as to why they are there and what they hope to achieve during the different sessions. It is important to give them their chance to share their side of the story. Many times, they feel as if their side of the story is not heard, so they will seem agitated, frustrated, annoyed and so on. Allow them to express those emotions and validate those emotions. That is another easy way to get them engaged in the therapeutic process. I also think it is important to get a gauge on how they will know if they have achieved their goals.

Finally, take some time to explore their worries/concerns about the counseling process. Usual worries/concerns that I hear are, “I don’t think this will help,” “He/she is going to come in here and act like they are the ‘perfect’ parent,” or “We have already tried other things and none of those things worked, so I don’t think this will either.”  Take the time to validate how they feel and use the time to get a better understanding of what they need from you as the therapist to make the process a comfortable experience for them. I have noticed by asking them, “What do you need from me?” they feel that they are being heard and feel more comfortable about moving forward.

Keeping the client engaged 

As stated before, engagement is not a one time thing; it continuously happens in each session. There will be times that your clients come in and there may be something going on that does not relate to the counseling session, but since their mind is preoccupied with what is going on they don’t seem engaged in the session. I like to take a few minutes to let them talk about what else is going on if they feel that it will help get them re-engaged with the session.

Other ways of keeping them engaged is checking in with them and gauging their progress. Ask questions like, “How would you rate your progress thus far?” “Can you name one thing that has improved since starting therapy?” “Are you still okay with the original goals you created?” These questions can help get the clients thinking about where they are at in the therapeutic process and evaluate if they feel any changes can be made. I find this part especially helpful for clients who seem to be in a “rut” and not making much progress.

Also, you can check in and see if the clients need anything additional from you. For example, I had a case I was working on where the clients had a hard time getting along and would argue about every tiny detail the other person made, and they were becoming increasingly frustrated about attending the sessions. I chose to take some time and work individually with them for a session and see what they needed from me. One of the clients stated that when she made a certain hand gesture she needed me to intervene and help her be heard in the session. We were able to use that and it helped decrease her frustration and she chose to remain committed to the process.

The key aspect to keeping the clients engaged is remaining neutral. As the SFT therapist, you are not there to pick sides, although at times you may feel compelled to side with one client or the other. It is important to remain neutral because if you begin siding with one client, the other client becomes less engaged and could eventually choose to stop coming to the sessions. If you begin to see yourself moving away from being neutral, it is important that you try to figure out what is causing that and find ways to correct that issue.

As you can see, engagement is a very important aspect to the SFT process. There are many other ways to get clients engaged and keep them engaged than what is discussed here in this blog. Take some time to think about what other ways you engage with your clients and feel free to share them with us!

If you'd like to learn more about expanding your practice to include court-ordered therapy, while earning valuable continuing education credits, get our Specialized Family Therapy Course Materials Now!

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