When working with clients it is not uncommon to encounter a client that is resistant towards the therapeutic process. A resistant client is one that either directly or indirectly opposes changing their behavior or refuses to discuss, remember, or think about presumably clinically relevant experiences. Many clients we see that come for Specialized Family Therapy tend to be resistant at some point during the therapeutic process. For instance, many come in saying, “I don’t understand why I am here. I don’t have a problem.” When we attempt to ask these client’s some questions, they try to change the topic or give little to no information. Understandably, it can become frustrating to encounter resistant clients; however, there are some things that can be done to help reduce resistance during therapy.
Don’t take it personally
First, when you encounter a resistant client, you do not want to take it personally. There can be a lot that is going on with that client. They may be having a bad day, something could have happened right before the therapy session, or they could have had a bad experience in therapy before. Showing a client that you are frustrated that they are not providing answers or they are constantly opposing new ideas that you present, will only fuel the resistant fire. The more calm and relaxed you remain, the more likely the client will become less resistant and open towards making changes (or at least hear your ideas about changes).
Find out where the resistance is coming from
Resistance is energy, and all that energy has to be coming from somewhere. One way to make resistance effective during therapy is to begin to uncover where it is coming from. People become resistant for many different reasons. One, it could be out of habit. They may be in constant conflict with others in their life that it is projected into the therapy session. Also, some clients may begin to feel anxious about making changes that the way they cope with that anxiety is they shut down and become resistant. Knowing why they are resistant will help you figure out what they need to move past the resistance and be open to change.
Turn the resistance from a negative thing to a positive thing
In the end, resistance is energy, and a lot of times we equate it as negative energy that is found during therapy. However, resistance can be turned into positive energy. For example, when I am working with clients and they state that they do not want to try a new idea I proposed to them, I attempt to use a paradoxical approach. I may tell them to keep doing what they are doing and report back to me the next week and see if things have improved or gotten worse. A lot of times they come back and say that they thought about it a little more and attempted to try the new idea instead. What I believe is the client wants to feel like they have the control in what they do, so by saying they don’t want to do something and then deciding to do it anyways helps them feel more in control of what is happening during therapy. Also, I notice that clients often feel like people are always telling them what to do, especially those who are court ordered, and for the therapist to take a step back and say that is okay, you do not need to do it, makes the client feel more at ease.
Other things to consider when a client becomes resistant
As you continue to move forward and you notice your client is remaining resistant, you should begin to look at trying new techniques. For instance, do you notice that you are using more closed-ended questions rather than open-ended questions? Are you validating and empathizing with the client enough? Does the client feel supported during therapy? These are just some things to consider. Also, you may want to consider looking over the goals that you and the client created and see if those are the same goals you are working on, or have you drifted away from those. When that happens, the client may become confused or unsupported and that may show itself as being resistant.
Also, you may want to see if there may be any transference or counter-transference occurring. Is the client transferring feelings that they have toward another individual towards you? This can happen a lot for those who have been involved in the family court process, or have been to other therapists that they did not view as a positive experience. Clients may transfer feelings of hurt, resentment and frustration towards the therapist, when in actuality; they may be experiencing those symptoms towards the mother/father of their children. The same may go for the therapist. The therapist may unknowingly transfer feelings they have with another individual that they see similarities in with their client, which can lead the client to feel resistant.
Finally, if you notice you have tried all of these things and you cannot figure out how to move past the resistance, seek out supervision. Your supervisor and other colleagues may have different insight and experience in working with resistant clients, and may be able to provide you with other approaches you can try.